As we approach the August 2, 2011 deadline on the debt ceiling, and a possible default of the public debt of the United States of America, with unknown consequences for the world’s economy, the Republican intransigence at raising taxes (aka ”revenues” to some), has placed America at the brink of a cliff.
In part, this is a result of the design for this country in the Constitution - crafted by our forefathers – a give and take between the unruly House of Representatives, elected every two years, and the more deliberate (some say too deliberate) Senate, whose members have six-year terms. The President, elected by a majority of the people (at least those who can vote, and do so, except of course in 2000), is chartered to lead the way, to set the course of America for at least four years, by agreeing or not agreeing to the laws passed by Congress.
We are now seeing how this sausage is actually made, and it is not pretty, with the talking heads of cable news clawing at every scrap of information to feed instantly to the world. And the debt ceiling negotiations are going on behind closed doors, in Congress and at the White House, with gangs of six (or eight, or whatever) doing the heavy lifting. Why? Have you ever tried to get a consensus of ten people sitting together in a room? Rarely possible. Try to get it from a majority of 535 Members of Congress, a substantial minority of whom have taken blood oaths never, never to vote for a tax increase.
The Republicans’ “cap, cut, and balance” bill (just defeated in the U.S. Senate) was nothing more than pure theater, an attempt to remove the fact from American history that the policies of the eight Bush years were thoroughly discredited by the American people in 2008 when Barack Obama was overwhelmingly elected President. It would have reduced discretionary spending in fiscal year 2012 to below that in fiscal year 2008, essentially saying “We reject everything Barack Obama has tried to do over the past two plus years to bring this country back from the brink of the abyss Bush and his policies put us”. It also would do nothing to contain or reduce defense spending, an open sore swelling the deficit, and it would not touch the bloated Homeland Security budget, or Veterans Affairs (because many of our veterans have PTSD, and we should do something for them and their families).
Of course, the Republicans’ C, C & B effort focused on devastating the entitlement programs, since most people who get entitlements don’t vote for Republicans. It also would preserve the tax cuts and loopholes for the rich, since these people do vote for them, at least until their consciences finally drive some of them to do the right thing. Cutting entitlements, capping the budget, and passing a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution could cripple the U.S. Government’s ability to respond to future crises. (Look how well the two-third’s majority budget requirement worked in California until the voters dumped it in the 2010 election.)
The Society of the Cincinnati is a little-known patriotic organization formed by George Washington in 1783, composed of the 3000 or so officers who served under him in the Revolutionary War. Its initial charter was to lobby the Continental Congress to pay the loyal patriots who fought the British to victory in that war, from 1775 to 1783. Thereafter, its function was to keep alive the American patriotic spirit of the Revolutionary War for future generations of Americans who may have forgotten the desperate struggles that resulted in the creation of our democracy. The Society exists today, with a beautiful headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. across from the Cosmos Club, and 3000 plus members, all descendants of those original officers.
I am one of them. My great-great-great-great grandfather was First Lt. Pelatiah Everett, who was one of the 70 men who faced the British in the first battle of the war, the Lexington Alarm of April 19, 1775 (and may have fired the first shot of the war). He served until he was mustered out in November, 1783, when the hostilities were concluded by the withdrawal of the last British troops from the territory of the future United States. If he were alive today, he would be disgusted at what the Republicans are trying to do to the country he fought so long and hard to help establish.
Hopefully, by August 2, 2011, our Government will resolve the debt ceiling problem without precipitating the worldwide depression that most likely would result from a U.S. default on its debt. As a last resort, President Obama could declare the debt ceiling law unconstitutional as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, in spite of his potential giveaway of this issue at his July 22 Maryland town hall meeting, when he said his “legal advisors” were not confident this approach would hold up. I suggested this strategy in my LA Progressive article on July 3, 2011, and I believe that this option should not be taken off the table by President Obama, who could “disagree” with his legal advisors, declare the debt ceiling law unconstitutional, and dare the Republicans in Congress to challenge him on this.
Many Progressives are fearful about the outcome that might result from Obama’s backroom dealings with the Republicans in Congress. But a lot could be done regarding Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that would not be unpalatable:
- Social Security. The cap on income subject to annual payroll taxes for Social Security has sat at $106,800 for many years now, and could be gradually increased, as it has been in the past ($3,000 or $4,000 per year) to a much higher level. At the same time, the federal government could still keep the percentage of income withheld for Social Security at the 10% level it is now, versus the 12.4% it was at for many years in the past. (FICA taxes for Social Security and Medicare rose from 8.0% to 15.3% during the Reagan and Bush I years.) This would have the effect of increasing Social Security payroll taxes for the well-to-do but not for struggling lower income Americans, while increasing the future benefits for those who would pay additional payroll taxes.
- Medicare. The age initially to receive Medicare could gradually increase to age 67, as it is now for new applicants for Social Security benefits (except for those who choose to take reduced benefits at age 62). As the “Obamacare” increased healthcare benefits for those not eligible for Medicare kick in over the next few years, the impact on persons receiving their initial Medicare benefits several years later than age 65 would not be catastrophic. And they would have several years to plan for this future short delay in receiving Medicare benefits.
- Medicaid. This program has been rife with waste and abuse, and badly needs to be overhauled. Hopefully this can be done without reducing benefits for the truly needy, but rather cutting the costs of providing medical services.
In any event, the debt ceiling issue has to be resolved soon. If it is not, and Congress lets the public debt of the United States of America go into default, there will be consequences, and they will not be pretty. Every Member of Congress who voted against increasing the debt ceiling should be targeted for defeat in the 2012 election. If that is not successful in changing the makeup of Congress after 2012, I may follow the lead of my ancestor Pelatiah Everett, and begin a new revolution.
Edward Everett (Ted) Vaill is in his second term as an elected delegate to the California Democratic Party for the 41st Assembly District, such as it is now, with redistricting looming in the future.