Politics & Law

The sequester and the Tea Party Plot

Robert Reich

Imagine a plot to undermine the government of the United States, to destroy much of its capacity to do the public’s business, and to sow distrust among the population.

Imagine further that the plotters infiltrate Congress and state governments, reshape their districts to give them disproportionate influence in Washington, and use the media to spread big lies about the government.

Finally, imagine they not only paralyze the government but are on the verge of dismantling pieces of it.

Far-fetched?  Perhaps. But take a look at what’s been happening in Washington and many state capitals since Tea Party fanatics gained effective control of the Republican Party, and you’d be forgiven if you see parallels.

Tea Party Republicans are crowing about the “sequestration” cuts beginning today (Friday). “This will be the first significant tea party victory in that we got what we set out to do in changing Washington,” says Rep. Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), a Tea Partier who was first elected in 2010.

What next?

Sequestration is only the start. What they set out to do was not simply change Washington but eviscerate the U.S. government — “drown it in the bathtub,” in the words of their guru Grover Norquist – slashing Social Security and Medicare, ending worker protections we’ve had since the 1930s, eroding civil rights and voting rights, terminating programs that have helped the poor for generations, and making it impossible for the government to invest in our future.

Sequestration grew out of a strategy hatched soon after they took over the House in 2011, to achieve their goals by holding hostage the full faith and credit of the United States – notwithstanding the Constitution’s instruction that the public debt of the United States “not be questioned.”

To avoid default on the public debt, the White House and House Republicans agreed to harsh and arbitrary “sequestered” spending cuts if they couldn’t come up with a more reasonable deal in the interim. But the Tea Partiers had no intention of agreeing to anything more reasonable. They knew the only way to dismember the federal government was through large spending cuts without tax increases.

Nor do they seem to mind the higher unemployment their strategy will almost certainly bring about. Sequestration combined with January’s fiscal cliff deal is expected to slow economic growth by 1.5 percentage points this year – dangerous for an economy now crawling at about 2 percent. It will be even worse if the Tea Partiers  refuse to extend the government’s spending authority, which expires March 27.

A conspiracy theorist might think they welcome more joblessness because they want Americans to be even more fearful and angry. Tea Partiers use fear and anger in their war against the government – blaming the anemic recovery on government deficits and the government’s size, and selling a poisonous snake-oil of austerity economics and trickle-down economics as the remedy.

They likewise use the disruption and paralysis they’ve sown in Washington to persuade Americans government is necessarily dysfunctional, and politics inherently bad. Their continuing showdowns and standoffs are, in this sense, part of the plot.

Forget the ‘grand bargain’

What is the President’s response? He still wants a so-called “grand bargain” of “balanced” spending cuts (including cuts in the projected growth of Social Security and Medicare) combined with tax increases on the wealthy. So far, though, he has agreed to a gross imbalance — $1.5 trillion in cuts to Republicans’ $600 billion in tax increases on the rich.

The President apparently believes Republicans are serious about deficit reduction, when in fact the Tea Partiers now running the GOP are serious only about dismembering the government.

And he seems to accept that the budget deficit is the largest economic problem facing the nation, when in reality the largest problem is continuing high unemployment (some 20 million Americans unemployed or under-employed), declining real wages, and widening inequality. Deficit reduction now or in the near-term will only make these worse.

Besides, the deficit is now down to about 5 percent of GDP – where it was when Bill Clinton took office. It is projected to mushroom in later years mainly because healthcare costs are expected to rise faster than the economy is expected to grow, and the American population is aging. These trends have little or nothing to do with government programs. In fact, Medicare is far more efficient than private health insurance.

I suggest the President forget about a “grand bargain.” In fact, he should stop talking about the budget deficit and start talking about jobs and wages, and widening inequality – as he did in the campaign. And he should give up all hope of making a deal with the Tea Partiers who now run the Republican Party.

Instead, the President should let the public see the Tea Partiers for who they are — a small, radical minority intent on dismantling the government of the United States. As long as they are allowed to dictate the terms of public debate they will continue to hold the rest of us hostage to their extremism.

Cross-posted from Robert Reich’s blog.

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Comments to "The sequester and the Tea Party Plot":
    • Freedom Girl

      Vinny, what on earth are you smoking??? You are about six years behind the times on your thinking. All my friends who voted for Obummer have seen the light. What is taking you so long???

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    • Vinny

      The country was a disaster when Obama took over, and the real spending binge came before he took office under the Bush administration. Much of the additional spending in the Obama administration after he took office was to deal with the economic carnage of the Bush economic collapse.

      (For more, including visuals, see this piece on the Washington Post website.)

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    • LP Hitzigrath

      @ John: The reason you’re not seeing many blogs ( at least from any economists or historians) about the government trying to take over the world is that there are no facts whatsoever to justify it.

      Government spending has been rising at an almost logarithmic rate since the ’40’s. The fact is that budget increases under Obama are rising at a lower rate that any president since Eisenhower.

      Another fact is the deficit has decreased under Obama. Tea Partiers want to use debt figures to try and make him look like a big spender. The fact is that the only way to see a decrease in total federal debt would be to show a surplus of close to 500 million. That’s just above break even. To see any substantial reduction in debt would require billion-dollar surpluses for at least ten years. There is absolutely no way that could possibly happen without some kind of revenue increase.

      Another fact is that top-tier income tax rates are the lowest they’ve been since that late 1920s. That would be the period leading up to the Great Depression. How about the fact that Federal revenue ( in percentage of GDP) from corporate taxes and excise taxes has fallen to roughly 25% of what it was in the 1950s.

      All it takes is a look at our past economic history and a little basic logic to see that the further you go to the right, the more you are backing the policies that got us in this mess in the first place.

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    • Robert

      @LP
      Your “facts” are not facts at all, only extensions of your sadly mistaken beliefs. The deficit decreased under Obama? In what universe? He added more in only 4 years than any president in history. That’s a fact. Here’s another fact for you…the deficit was approximately 10 trillion when he took over, but he has added 6 trillion in only 4 years…a record amount. The gov’t is slated to take in a record amount of revenue in 2013, yet still run a deficit of nearly 900 billion? Something is terribly wrong in Washington, and it starts with Obama and his ilk. Two more facts, while we’re at it…1) the wealthy pay a larger share of income tax since the 1930s (as per the IRS), and 2) this “mess” can be directly traced to the Dems’ social engineering of the housing market via Fannie and Freddie. Thank you, Senators Frank and Dodd.

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      • Vinny

        Robert, There are lies, damn lies and statistics, and your post is a perfect example of this. The nation was due to have a $1 trillion deficit no matter who took office in 2009. First, the economy was collapsing so we lost close to $400 billion in direct federal revenues. Second, Obama put ALL the military spending on budget so it immediately made it APPEAR as if there was a $200 billion larger deficit than before. That is because Bush placed close to $200 billion in defense spending off budget by Bush using the trick of calling it supplemental spending. Third, the economic collapse placed a lot of people on unemployment benefits and food stamps, also increasing the deficit. Fourth, the world economy also went into a deep recession, making it difficult for the US economy to grow.

        Lets look at the big picture. Bush came into office with a $200 billion surplus and left with a $1 trillion deficit, added $3 trillion to the deficit on the twin unfunded wars alone. Bush expanded military spending from $300 billion to close to $700 billion, formed a massive homeland security apparatus that costs close to $100 billion a year, and we now must spend major sums on veterans care for those injured in the twin unfunded wars. When you add all that up, it spells out that Bush added a NEW $500 billion to the US government spending EACH year. That wasn’t Obama’s doing. Bush also caused major increases in Medicare spending by getting the Medicare prescription drug benefit passed WITHOUT providing ANY funding source and by PREVENTING the US government from negotiating with Big Pharma to reduce drug prices like virtually all other governments do. Bush was the major spender in his time and much of the deficit now is the result of that increased spending he built into the system, combined with the reduced revenues from the economic collapse.

        Now finally the economy is growing and the deficit will start coming down, and coming down rapidly. We do need to limit spending and even cut some, but the primer target its defense spending, but let’s add cutting agricultural subsidies, cutting down the $30 billion/year in congressional earmarks and subsides to high profitable companies. The very wealthy are making a killing on low capital gains and dividend taxes. There is no way they should pay a lower tax rate on that kind of income than upper middle and lower upper class working people do from their salaries.

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    • Henry Stimson

      Prof. Reich spins his conspiracy theories in contradiction to established fact. Numerous sources, most notably Woodward’s book and articles, establish that the sequester strategy originated with Pres. Obama. And as even the New York Times points out, the small sequester cut will only “paralyze government” if that’s how Pres. Obama’s Executive Branch chooses to implement it.

      So why the harsh, dishonest rhetoric from Prof Reich and others on the left?

      And how much does Berkeley want to be associated with this kind of argument?

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    • John Stevens

      For once i would like to see a blog writeup from the other side – imagine if Reich is 100% wrong and its a liberal plot to grow the government (spending up 38% since 2008 – perr CNN), wipe out the private sector (higher business and investment taxes), have government provide services previously held by private firms(government motors, insurance (AIG), heatlhcare (Medicare is largest insurer, VA is largest provider) unlimited funds from the Fed, etc.

      Reich thinks the world is out to tear out government – how about blogs about the government taking over the world, and tea party is the last stand before it does?

      Imagine if Campainger in Chief actually managed the budget (‘to manage’ = to allocate resources) – any one can buy votes wiht borrowed money – when does he plan to actually repay it? Reich lives in lala land while the rest of us actually pay for lala land. And yes, some are actually getting sick and tired of having to fund lala land. If the 47% want all those services, they need to start funding all their services instead of just having the government borrow to keep the peasants happy!

      Now wouldn’t that be a blog to read?

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    • Vinny

      John, it might help you if you had some facts instead of spouting off nonsense. You act as if everything was wonderful until 2008. The fact is the disastrous policies of the Bush administration send us into a major hole and we are just beginning to dig out. For more, see this Washington Post blog post.

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      • Mulder

        Laying the current economic mess at the feet of Bush is an exercise of reductio ad absurdum. The country has been on this economic slide since 1965, aided and abetted by every Congress and President since.

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    • Robert

      John you are spot on. The rest of these charlatans (including the has-been Reich) never learned to NOT drink the bong water. The country isn’t digging out of anything, and it won’t as long as the current crop of n’er-do-wells are in office.

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    • John Mashey

      Given that the Tea Party was fostered by the tobacco companies with the help of the Koch brothers, none of whom really want the Federal government to work … this should be no surprise.

      Folks at UCSF have found some fascinating history of the Tea Party by rummaging through the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, IRS Form 990s, and related sources, and recently published a terrific peer-reviewed research paper. For a quick intro, see my blog post, which links to the UCSF presentation and paper (free).

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    • Tina Trent, Ph.D.

      Again, John, the Tea Party is a real grassroots movement. They partnered with AFP in limited ways during this last election in order to take advantage of GOTV tools in precisely the same way liberal activist groups are funded by or partner with a constellation of entities including the AFL-CIO, PAW, B-G, NALEO, LCCR, DNC (and as Republicans do with the RNC). We all could have chosen better tools, I suspect, on our side of the political divide.

      In other words, the Tea Party participated in the electoral process. Why does this make you angry and accusatory? There is no conspiracy. The Tea Party is a genuine, independent, and energetic citizen movement. In fact, they have less coordination with and more distance from the nationals than any group I witnessed in 20 years of political work, including a decade of coalition building, on the Left. I assure you that if you’re lying awake at night fuming over the Koch brothers owning this movement, you should get some shut-eye. It’s not true. They work together when they work together, but they are not one and the same by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s also not your real complaint, I suspect. You resent these people existing and daring to participate in political process that you deem above their sophistication.

      I imvite you to attend any Tea Party meeting with me. I spoke to a group last night where there are at least a dozen retired college and university professors and retired teachers. The group includes, in addition to many businesspeople, someone who ran a large state welfare bureaucracy, social workers and engineers. Not as many comp lit graduate students as one might find in your world, but we weren’t discussing Foucault so that worked out just fine. We did have an early music specialist and also a retired music instructor who taught children in poor communities for half a century. He’s a gem.

      You might have learned something there. You all might. Grow up, shelve your hysterics and get out a bit.

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