NOTE: The text has been significantly revised and updated in light of the Senate’s passage early this morning (January 1), of an eleventh hour bill that aims to avert the fiscal cliff.
WOW – Talk about a cliff-hanger (pardon the pun)!
Early this morning (January 1) the Senate passed a bill that aims to avert the fiscal cliff. This bill, passed by an overwhelming 89-8 majority, represents the culmination of intense back and forth negotiation between Vice President Biden and Senate Republican leader Mitch Mc Connell. The real question is: Will the Republican controlled House vote to approve this bill, which appears extremely doubtful at this juncture, or will they send it back to the Senate for further revision in the form of additional spending cuts? If that occurs, any definitive action will be delayed until the new Congress begins session. Our best hope at this point is to persuade the new Congress to could pass legislation that would retroactively blocking the tax hikes and spending cuts.
Key features of the Senate bill include preventing middle-class taxes from rising while raising rates on incomes over $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples, blocking spending cuts for two months to buy time for both parties to “flesh these out”, extending long term unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless for one year, preventing a 27 percent in fees for doctors treating Medicare patients and preventing a spike in milk prices.
While ideally I’d love to see our Democratic party win on all of the points that Obama and his colleagues have been pressing for, this obviously isn’t in the cards. Realistically, to break the impasse we need to come through with tangible concessions that Boehner and Cantor can use as ammunition to persuade their fellow House Republicans to come around.
Not surprisingly the main objection that House Republicans have to the Senate bill is that it doesn’t provide enough spending cuts. Realistically if we want to push negotiations forward in the interest of heading off another recession, our party needs to identify and put on the table a number of viable areas where we are willing to agree to tax cuts. While you can probably identify a number of additional options, two thoughts that immediately come to mind are (a) reductions in total outlays for disability benefits, food stamps and unemployment benefits (as distinct from benefit cut-backs), and (b) reasonable cut-backs in our defense budget.
Reining in excessive benefit outlays
I realize I’m sticking my neck out here, as my proposal to cut back on total outlays for disability benefits, food stamps and unemployment benefits will unquestionably raise the ire of many fellow Democrats. But guys and gals, please hear my out on this one!
Holding true to my core values as a Democrat, I would never advocate depriving access to these vital components of our safety net to anyone with a legitimate need for these benefits. By the same token, I contend that there is plenty of waste and abuse in each of these areas that needs to be reined in.
A Bloomberg News release on December 29 points out that some 88.9 million Americans are now out of the labor force – 2.4 million more than a year ago and 11.4 million more than in 2006. These figures should trigger a high decibel alarm to anyone concerned with ensuring that our nation keeps its head above water.
Take the area of disability assistance. Thirty years ago there was a 40-to-1 ratio between the total labor force and those receiving disability payments, compared with today’s ratio of less than 18-to-1. All in all, the total share of workers who are either unemployed or receiving government disability benefits totals 12.6 percent today, or one out of every eight workers.
What could possibly have precipitated such an enormous rise in the proportion of American workers on disability over the past 30 years? This phenomenon is especially puzzling in view of the fact that substantial medical breakthroughs have occurred over the past several decades, while the proportion of American workers engaged in dangerous industrial jobs has substantially declined. Significantly, seventy percent of Americans receiving disability assistance now fall into three large diagnostic groups – mental disorders (32 percent), musculoskeletal disorders (29 percent) and disorders of the nervous system and sense organs (9 percent). Significantly, each of these categories represents a medical gray area that entails a significant judgment call on the part of the certifying physician. Unfortunately a whole industry has developed whereby unscrupulous lawyers and physicians are all too willing to attest to the validity of disability claims that would be highly questionable if subjected to objective scrutiny.
To the dismay of many liberal readers, I submit that a “take whatever I can get” mindset has spread across a sizable segment of our current workforce, which makes it tempting for many to drop out of the workforce in favor of a “free ride” consisting of disability benefits, Medicare or Medicaid, food stamps and other government goodies. To be certain, the cynicism that motivates many people to seek out unwarranted disability assistance is accentuated in our dismal state of economic affairs. This, in turn, feeds into a belief held by many that “the American dream” enjoyed by previous generations is now a thing of the past. This does not, however, detract from the sad reality that hundreds of thousands of able-bodied and able-minded American workers have opted to play the “disability game”. I am shamefully aware of members of my own family who are playing this game – a very dangerous game that has seriously eroded our country’s work ethic and is a major force driving our nation to the brink of bankruptcy.
With our nation’s unemployment rate still hovering at a dangerously high level of 7.7 percent, we unquestionably we need to maintain a strong safety net for unemployed workers who are actively seeking gainful employment and coming up dry. We also need to aggressively provide the unemployed with job skills updating when needs, and effective job search training. Ideally, I would like to see a return of the Civilian Conservation Corps spearheaded by FDR during the great depression. Having said that, I have no doubt that large numbers of unemployed Americans who could be gainfully employed have instead opted for a long-term vacation at taxpayers’ expense by playing the “unemployment benefits” game. Believe me, having come up as a young adult in the ’60s and ’70s, I am quite familiar with the ins and outs of this dangerous and self-defeating game.
So, how do I propose that we go about identifying opportunities for spending cutbacks in the above-cited areas? I most definitely would NOT advocate an arbitrary cut-back in benefits in any of these programs. Rather, I would propose a “Working Bi-partisan Compact” to effectively address endemic waste and abuse, thus enabling us to curb unnecessary outlays that are draining the treasuries of our local, state and national governments. More specifically, I would propose creation of a bi-partisan working task force to develop a tangible reform plan impacting on each of these areas. This task force should be charged with presenting concrete recommendations to our administration and Congress within the next three months – including targeted reductions in aggregate outlays in each area.
Defense budget cut-backs:
In order to break the fiscal cliff impasse, we also need to bring to the table a concrete proposal for effectiing mutually acceptable cut-backs in our nation’s military spending.
These cut-backs should be accomplished, I believe, through a combination of identifying and eliminating areas of needless waste and duplication, and insisting that our allies assume their fair share of responsibility for defense of the free world.
As an American I am proud of our nation’s vanguard role in defending the free world and am a firm believer in a strong American military presence. Over the past several decades, however, I have become increasingly frustrated with our nation’s bearing the lion’s share of responsibility defending the free world. To be blunt, I am sick and tired of seeing our sons and daughters bearing a disproportionate share of the burden of war in terms of death and disability. Especially in view of our chronic economic crisis, I submit that it is high time to demand that our allies to roll up their sleeves and bear their fair share of human and economic costs associated with the ongoing vigilance that is required as the price of freedom.
Whether or not you agree with the suggestions posed above, you can no doubt put forth your own suggestions for reining in our nation’s continually escalating cycle of excessive debt while preserving our necessary safety net and public infrastructure. I encourage you to pass your suggestions to your representatives in both houses of Congress and demand that they take bold, decisive and flexible immediate action to break the fiscal cliff gridlock that is paralyzing our nation.
John Newport (Dr. John) is a centrist Democrat and an author, speaker and social commentator who lives in Tucson and loves the city and its people. He writes from the heart and has four books under his belt, together with over 200 articles focusing on personal and societal wellness, self-help and spirituality. His most recent book “The Tucson Tragedy: Lessons from the Senseless Shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, was featured on Tucson channels 4 and 13 and in the FOX 11 forum, as well as on “Good Morning Arizona”. (For further information on the book visit www.healingtucson.net) He frequently contributes letters and opinion pieces to the Arizona Daily Star, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, The Therapist and other publications.