What to do in a hostage crisis? Sometimes it seems there are no good choices. Giving in to the demands may save the hostage's life for now, but it encourages the terrorist to try again.
In December, millions of long-term jobless were held hostage by the Republicans. The extended benefits program for those unemployed more than six months was about to expire, and Republicans were blocking its renewal. Their price for allowing a 1-year renewal of the extended unemployment insurance program, was to a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2%. The president and Congressional Democrats agreed to pay.
That was softball compared with the standoff over the government shutdown.
Under the Constitution, the government cannot spend any money unless authorized by Congress. And spending bills are controlled by the House, now in Republican/tea party hands. With funding authority set to expire last Friday night, much of the government would have had to shut down. In addition to 800,000 government workers being laid off, all kinds of government services would stop. If the shutdown lasted more than a few weeks, affected areas would probably include transportation, housing, food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, research, national parks and museums, unemployment compensation, tax refunds and much more.
With all that held hostage, the Republicans' demanded over $61 billion in spending cuts, directed exclusively at the small slice of the budget that actually helps people and provides essential services to the economy. They also made demands that have almost no impact on the deficit, including ending Planned Parenthood's women's health programs, tying the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency, and defunding NPR.
It appears that Democratic hostage negotiators struck a deal to stop a temporary, total government shutdown, at the cost of a permanent, partial shutdown. The reported compromise cuts of $38 billion for the next six months, or $78 billion below President Obama's original proposal. The cuts are painfully deep. They will result in a loss of about 400,000 jobs, many in the private sector. At this writing, it is unclear if the Republicans backed off, for now, their demands to immediately defund Planned Parenthood, EPA, and NPR.
That was round one. Round two will come in mid-May, when Congress must pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling. This should be routine, but House Speaker John Boehner has already declared that "There will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it." Likely targets include a corporate wish-list of tax cuts for the rich, deeper cuts to social programs including Medicare, and the elimination of regulations that insure safe food, travel, consumer protection, workers' rights and working conditions.
Round three is next. The deal that was just reached only keeps the government running until September 30. The budget for the year beginning October 1 is already in the works. The budget process is controlled by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who runs the House budget committee. His proposal would effectively eliminate non-military spending over ten years, while cutting taxes (again) for the rich. Two-thirds of the spending cuts fall on low-and moderate-income families. His budget kills health reform and financial reform. It privatizes (and ultimately destroys) Medicare. His budget would result in widespread job loss, and seriously undermine the U.S. economy for years to come. It is an accelerated and massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the very rich. (The Ryan budget is also a fraud, using absurd assumptions and a vivid imagination to claim a big reduction in the deficit. But that is another story).
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich is one of many voices calling on the president and Democratic leadership in Congress to fight back, saying, "I hope the president decides he has to take a stand, and the sooner the better... The right-wing bullies are emboldened. They will hold the nation hostage again and again."
Shortly after he took office, I saw President Obama on CSPAN at a town hall meeting in California. When challenged on his failure to crack down on Wall Street, his reply was that when a man has a bomb in a crowded room and threatens to blow everyone up, you have to be very careful how you deal with him. The implication was clear - the Wall Street banksters are terrorists who can and will destroy the entire economy if we don't give them everything they want.
I have been unable to find a record of that appearance. And I have never heard the president use that kind of language again. On the contrary, when he announced that a government shutdown had been averted, President Obama said, as if it was something to celebrate, "Americans of different beliefs came together," to enact the "largest annual spending cut in our history."
But the way to stop the corporate-Wall Street hostage takers is not by joining hands with them, or by agreeing with them. On April 4, as the government shutdown crisis was unfolding, Americans of different beliefs did come together in hundreds of communities around the country. They were unemployed and working Americans, private- and public-sector, retirees and students, union and not-yet-union and community. They were a real cross section of our country's multi-racial, multi-national, young-old, male-female, gay-straight working class. The slogan was "We are One" and the message that we won't be divided fighting over crumbs while the CEOs are getting most of the cake, and the real deficit we face is a deficit of fairness.
This is the kind of "coming together" we need -- not coming together with the enemies of the U.S. working class in a phony compromise that only sets the stage for the next set of corporate demands. Building and multiplying the labor-led "We are One" movement is the only way to take on the hostage-takers.