Inside Story

By Lesley Russell

Political Washington is in the midst of a protracted and partisan war over budgets and deficits. So different are the Republican and Democrat policy positions and the rhetoric and facts they advance in support of them that Americans living in the real world could be forgiven for thinking that this war has little or nothing to do with them and the real-life problems they face.

Worse, the fight is taking place in two different time zones. It's not clear how many people – including some of the politicians involved – recognise that Republicans are incensed about President Obama's 2012 budget proposal while Democrats are objecting to Republican proposals for the 2011 budget, which has never been finalised, although the fiscal year is half over. (Currently, the government is operating under a continuing resolution that keeps funding at the 2010 level.)

In his January State of the Union address, President Obama laid out his vision for "winning the future" and building a more prosperous America. In a sure sign that he knew what was coming from Republicans, he warned that the necessary budget cuts to come should not be at the expense of "our most vulnerable citizens" or "gutting our investments in innovation and education." That, he said, "is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't take long before you'll feel the impact."

His $3.7 trillion budget attempts to make good on these commitments with investments in infrastructure, scientific research, education and job creation, while still taking steps to get the long-term structural deficit under control. In all, some 200 programs are cancelled or cut. The budget papers reveal a bewildering array of government programs that don't work, are hopelessly outdated or are simply wacky. But there are also some very painful savings on the list, like the cut to the program that helps fund the cost of heating fuel for the poor.

Of course, Republicans in Congress immediately criticised the administration's budget plan for not containing enough in the way of cuts. "It's going to destroy jobs because it spends too much, it borrows too much, and it increases the deficit," House speaker John Boehner said. But at the same time that they're accusing the administration of crafting budget policies that will cause unemployment to rise, House Republicans have passed budget cuts for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 that would see nearly a million jobs disappear and hurt some of the nation's most vulnerable people.

As part of their Pledge to America, the Republicans vowed to cut at least $100 billion in discretionary spending this year. Party leaders initially unveiled a budget blueprint that cut just $32 billion through the remainder of fiscal year 2011 – claiming that was an appropriate proportion of the promised $100 billion. But faced with a revolt from Tea Party members, they returned to the drawing board, and have now found more than $60 billion in specific spending cuts. Still the flood of numbers has failed to allay complaints from the right that the party is only halfway toward its fiscal goal.

The Republican approach is to slash (and slash again when the Tea Party wants more) at programs in the 12.5 per cent of the federal budget that encompasses non-military discretionary spending. If it involves cutting funds for black colleges, for nutrition programs for poor women and children, for projects that tackle HIV or for public broadcasting, then so much the better. Taxes and the programs that really affect the deficit (defence, Medicare, Medicaid and social security) are off-limits.

It is estimated these cuts will lead to the loss of 650,000 government jobs, and the indirect loss of another 325,000 jobs as fewer government workers travel and buy things. When confronted with this fact, Speaker Boehner's cold response was simply, "So be it."

These days political consistency is not the Republicans' strong suit, and their inclinations are still to refight last year's battles on last year's issues. Most days they seem more interested in cutting back women's abortion rights, undoing food safety regulations and repealing health-care reform than tackling unemployment levels – the prime issue for voters. Republicans won the vote to repeal the healthcare reform law on the House floor in January, but this effort will go no further; the Senate won't take up repeal, and the president will veto any such bill that comes to his desk. So the party has turned its efforts to starving the scheme of funds.

Meanwhile, though, the polls show that while most Americans remain ambivalent about healthcare reform, they don't want the law repealed or defunded. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell no longer refers to "the will of the American people" and now insists, "We didn't swear an oath to uphold whatever's popular. We swore an oath to uphold the Constitution."

In the face of growing voter support for the reform provisions already in effect, the Republicans have promised to "repeal and reform." But Republican proposals to date don't stand up to tough scrutiny and are merely sophisticated versions of robbing Peter to pay Paul. They leave almost fifty-two million Americans uninsured and the health insurance industry in charge.

There are some tough issues ahead for both political parties. It's clear that the only way to address the deficit problem substantively is to rein in future spending on entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and social security. The president's budget conspicuously avoids this, despite citing entitlements as the major fiscal problem. While this omission has been deemed irresponsible by the Right and the Left, it sets a political trap for Republicans who are divided between conservatives pushing for major changes to entitlements, Tea Party members who want draconian budget cuts but hold entitlements sacrosanct, and a party leadership wary of the political peril of tinkering with these American icons.

Sooner or later Congressman Paul Ryan, the new chair of the House Budget Committee, will re-present his Roadmap for America's Future. He's been strangely silent about this proposal since before the mid-term elections – small wonder, given what it portends for today's middle-aged Americans. By 2021 Ryan wants to replace the Medicare program with a federal voucher that Medicare-eligible seniors could use to purchase health coverage. This will mean that future Medicare beneficiaries will spend significantly more out-of-pocket to maintain coverage equivalent to the current program. That will not go down well with today's fifty-six-year-olds, and could easily lead to a replay of the 2006 fight over George Bush's plan to privatise social security, which spooked voters and helped fuel big Democratic gains in the mid-terms that year.

There's an increasing likelihood that the political planets will collide very soon over the need to ensure continued government funding and raise the debt ceiling. Failure to reach agreement between the House and the Senate will shut down the government, a disaster scenario that will be blamed on Republicans. House GOP leaders know this, but struggle to control the demands and the votes of their colleagues. Obama says he's ready to deal, which makes Democrats nervous, but Republicans have not accepted the offer. It looks like we are headed for Star Wars VII, with no Luke Skywalker, or even Darth Vader, to save the day. •

Lesley Russell is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC. She is a Research Associate at both the Menzies Centre for Health Policy and the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.