Cruelty in motion: The latest GOP debt crisis “solution”

Keeping the government closed with a short-term debt ceiling deal shows a Dickensian contempt for the poor

Published October 10, 2013 3:49PM (EDT)

John Boehner, Ron Johnson                                      (Reuters/ Jim Bourg/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo collage by Salon)
John Boehner, Ron Johnson (Reuters/ Jim Bourg/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo collage by Salon)

(Updated below)

It’s supposed to be a sign of progress that House Republican leadership is prepared to support a clean short-term debt-ceiling hike, in order to fight on to destroy the Affordable Care Act by keeping the government shut down. In fact, it’s just more cruelty in motion, another sign that Republicans don’t care about the people, even within their own party, who depend on government and are being shattered by this shutdown.

Let’s put aside for the moment that House Speaker John Boehner’s proposal could wind up just like his “Plan B” for averting the fiscal cliff: a disaster that can’t win the support of his own party’s Wingnut Caucus. (I can’t keep calling them the Tea Party, it’s just too benign a label.) Crazy Steve King just told Luke Russert he won’t back the deal; others will follow.

For now let’s just focus on what this says to the country: that the people suffering while the government is shut down just don’t matter. Sure, the House GOP keeps floating grandstanding bills that would open this or that program, but they know they won’t pass. And they just don’t care. The GOP’s paymasters have spoken, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Heritage Action to FreedomWorks, and they have said a debt default is unacceptable – but the ongoing government shutdown is delectable. The “attention of Republicans and conservatives needs to be back on Obamacare and not on other ways out of this situation,” Heritage Action’s Michael Needham told reporters, so that Republicans can put all their power into keeping the government closed while savaging the Affordable Care Act.

So Boehner and friends listened, and now we have a short-term debt ceiling deal afoot that keeps the government closed.

Remember that the shutdown comes on top of the ugly sequester cuts imposed earlier this year, and mostly to the exact same discretionary domestic spending programs. To the cold hearts and closed minds on the right, neither matters. In fact, Sen. Ron Johnson, a member of the growing Default Denier Caucus within his own party (it overlaps quite a lot with the Stupid Caucus), told MSNBC Thursday that just as President Obama is fear-mongering on the danger of a debt default – he called it a “cash management” problem), he had also exaggerated the impact of sequester cuts.

Also keep in mind that the sequester cuts are currently baked into the “clean” continuing resolution that the Senate has passed repeatedly. That’s a compromise on the Democrats’ part that is mostly ignored by the media.

I would never say “both sides do it,” but it must be acknowledged that the incredible privilege of virtually everyone associated with the federal government in Washington, D.C., and yes, in both parties, insulates them from the real suffering elsewhere in the nation. (Many Democrats are capable of empathy nonetheless.) And if you want to understand why “false equivalence” dominates the media narrative, that’s a huge factor: the privilege and insularity of the Beltway media. I won’t name names right now but I’m watching writers and pundits I admire on television today applauding the House GOP proposal as a step forward, because a) their jobs depend on being the first to hail signs of "progress" and b) because they’re really not focused on the suffering this ongoing crisis has caused, because it hits no one they know.

On top of the 800,000 federal workers furloughed, who will miss three paychecks if the House GOP deal is accepted, food banks are now reporting shortages, since the Emergency Food Assistance program is closed. North Carolina has entirely suspended its Women, Infants and Children nutrition program because it relied so heavily on federal funding, and other states are likely to follow. (Think Progress, as always, has the best list of impacts, here.) Ironically red states are feeling the shutdown most because they get so much federal funding, but since the impact is mainly on poor people, they don’t care.

This all goes back to August of 2011, when the president unwisely opened negotiations over the debt ceiling with the impotent and sneaky Boehner, and Boehner gave nothing, and then said he got “98 percent” of what he sought. We have lived with unconscionable austerity ever since. Obama came out and boasted, as he has many times since, that he’d agreed to a deal to cut discretionary spending to the lowest level since Dwight Eisenhower was president, in the 1950s, which is something no Democrat should ever be proud of.

Two years later, Obama gets that, and so far the White House has said the clean debt-ceiling hike without reopening the government is unacceptable. (Update: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney just told reporters at his daily briefing, after a lot of parsing, that the president would actually sign a clean short-term debt-ceiling hike, but he seems to be counting on the fact that the House Wingnut Caucus won’t let Boehner pass one.) If Boehner’s gambit fails, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s one-year clean debt-ceiling hike will be the only legislation on the table. That’s the way it should be. But pay attention to what Boehner’s trying to do: mollify his plutocratic bosses while savaging the poor. That’s your “moderate” and “reasonable” GOP in action.

By Joan Walsh