The Republicans take aim

January 5, 2011

The challenge is for people on the left to come together and oppose the GOP assault.

THERE'S A target painted on your back--and Republicans are getting ready to pull the trigger.

The new Republican-controlled House of Representatives is getting set to implement incoming Speaker John Boehner's promise to slash $100 billion from the federal budget. That would mean a 20 percent cut in the budget in "nonsecurity discretionary spending."

Education? On the chopping block. Public transportation? Get ready to walk. Health care? Republicans want to repeal the Obama health care reform passed last year, and let the pharmaceutical and insurance companies call the shots.

Of course, House Republicans can't get away with this on their own. The Democrats still have a majority in the Senate, and President Obama can veto legislation. According to White House Budget Director Jacob Lew, the proposed Republican cuts "would have very damaging implications for the long-term growth of the economy and the long-term future of our workforce."

But don't expect Lew and his boss Obama to draw a line in the sand against the House Republicans. Obama has already imposed a three-year freeze in nonsecurity spending--which, given inflation and a growing U.S. population, itself amounts to a spending cut.

House Speaker John Boehner with fellow top Republicans Eric Cantor, Mike Pence and Jeb Hensarling
House Speaker John Boehner with fellow top Republicans Eric Cantor, Mike Pence and Jeb Hensarling

Meanwhile, Democratic governors such as Andrew Cuomo in New York, Jerry Brown in California and Pat Quinn in Illinois are preparing deep cuts of their own. Cuomo has proposed a pay freeze on New York public-sector workers and is preparing to carve up public employees' pensions. In California, Brown wants to restrict access to Medicaid, cut hours for home care for the disabled, and slash spending for public universities--measures that Brown's predecessor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, sought but failed to achieve.

So with the Democrats already embracing austerity budgets, the House Republicans have plenty of room to run amok.

LEADING THE attack is Boehner, a bagman for Big Tobacco who once passed out tobacco industry political action committee checks on the floor of the House while it was in session. As the New York Times noted before the November elections:

[Boehner] maintains especially tight ties with a circle of lobbyists and former aides representing some of the nation's biggest businesses, including Goldman Sachs, Google, Citigroup, R.J. Reynolds, MillerCoors and UPS. They have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaigns, provided him with rides on their corporate jets, socialized with him at luxury golf resorts and waterfront bashes and are now leading fundraising efforts for his Boehner for Speaker campaign, which is soliciting checks of up to $37,800 each, the maximum allowed.

Boehner's main hatchet man is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who takes over as head of the House Budget Committee. Under a new rule, Ryan will get the power to unilaterally set spending ceilings for 2011 without any other action by the House.

Ryan is usually portrayed in the media as a thinking person's alternative to the Tea Party, a serious man sincerely concerned about the economic impact of a U.S. budget deficit that's approaching $1 trillion.

But Ryan wasn't worried about busting the budget back in 2008 when he voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the $700 billion bailout for Wall Street. And Ryan joined other congressional Republicans to sign on to the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans, which will blow another $700 billion hole in the U.S. budget.

Yet when it comes to government spending that working people and the poor rely on, Ryan has only the ax to offer. His Road Map for America's Future proposes privatizing Social Security, converting Medicare into vouchers for private insurance and gutting Medicaid. At the same time, he proposes a tax utopia for the wealthy by capping income taxes at 25 percent and abolishing taxes on interest, capital gains and dividends, and eliminating the estate tax. Corporate taxes would be dropped, too, to be replaced with a business consumption tax of 8.5 percent.

Most of Ryan's program will likely have to remain on Corporate America's wish list because of Democratic opposition. But unless Obama and congressional Democrats agree to draconian budget cuts, House Republicans say they will refuse to raise the federal debt ceiling above its current limit of $14.3 trillion--a figure that's expected to be exceeded by March.

If the U.S. can't raise its debt ceiling, it would effectively bankrupt the U.S. government and cause a world financial crash that would make the panic of 2008 seem like a walk in the park. But that's exactly what Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the number two leader in the House, says he's prepared to do.

It's almost inconceivable that the Republicans would really pull the plug on the U.S. economy that way. But they'll use the threat to extract another "compromise" from Obama and the Democrats modeled on their agreement to extend the Bush tax cuts.

Even if House Republicans can't deliver on their full agenda, business will cash in the House victory right away.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the new head of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which oversees regulation of business, has already sent a letter to 150 companies and their associations for "your assistance in identifying existing and proposed regulations that have negatively impacted job growth in your members' industry." Recipients of the letter reportedly included Duke Energy, the Association of American Railroads, FMC Corp., Toyota, Bayer, the American Petroleum Institute, National Association of Manufacturers, the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association and key figures in the health care and telecommunications industries.

The big banks can expect the red carpet treatment from the House Republicans, too. "In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks," said Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the new chair of the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees the banks. The bankers are getting what they paid for: in 2009-10, the finance, insurance and real estate industries contributed $752,200 to Bachus, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

And as the House tends to the interests of its corporate paymasters, it will also find time to whip up opposition to immigrants and fear of Muslims. Rep. Peter King of New York, the new head of the Homeland Security Committee, will hold hearings on what he calls the "radicalization of the American Muslim community." King, who was among those who incited the right-wing backlash over the so-called "Ground Zero" mosque, now has a powerful position from which to continue the witch-hunt against Muslims.

THE CHALLENGE now is for people on the left--union members, social movement activists, community groups and others--to come together and oppose these attacks. Whether they're pushed from the Republican House--or by Democrats in governors' mansions and the Oval Office--budget cuts will continue to wreck the lives of working people already reeling from the aftereffects of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.

With one in eight people in the U.S. already dependent on food stamps, and a combined unemployment and underemployment rate of 17 percent, tens of millions of people are more vulnerable than they have been in generations. Further cuts will, quite literally, kill.

One of the first steps in building an opposition will be to expose what the Republican agenda is really about. The Democrats under Obama have discredited themselves so thoroughly as servants of Wall Street that the Republicans have been able to get away with posing as populists, standing up for the "little guy" against Obama's "big government" menace in cahoots with the bankers.

But the truth is that Republican agenda is deeply unpopular with the vast majority of the U.S. population. For example, a new 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair opinion poll found that 61 percent of Americans said that increasing taxes to the wealthy should be the first step toward balancing the budget. Just 4 percent thought that cuts in Medicare should be the top priority, and only 3 percent wanted to begin cuts on Social Security.

Thus, as the Republicans press ahead with their assault, more and more people will come to see that their "populism" is a fraud--and the minority on the left who already recognize this will become more determined to organize a fight. Rebuilding the left can come in the struggles to challenge the right and its vicious program.

Building the resistance to these savage attacks won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight. But with Democrats and Republicans in agreement that bankers have to be bailed out and the Pentagon's wars have to be funded while workers suffer from the effects of austerity, we have no choice but to rely on ourselves to organize and fight back.

Further Reading

From the archives