Too Quick to Pronounce Trump Budget Dead on Arrival

June 8, 2017

I recently said I was torn between delving into Trump’s proposed budget and picking at less-reported angles because the package was DOA in the Senate.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says no such thing. Some Republicans may balk at some details, but the major thrusts replicate those in budgets the House has passed ever since Republicans gained control in 2010.

These include repeal of the Affordable Care Act (natch), block granting Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program) and a range of cuts to non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations.

We’ve also seen, though CBPP doesn’t mention them, proposals to bar workers without Social Security numbers, i.e., not officially authorized to work for pay, from claiming the refundable Child Tax Credit, even though most of the children who’d benefit are U.S. citizens.

And let’s not forget tax cuts tilted heavily toward very rich people and thriving corporations — revenues the government could otherwise use to shore up programs that serve low-income people’s immediate needs and as both parties are fond of saying, build (or rebuild) the middle class.

What this means is that we could see a joint budget resolution that delivers program-slashing instructions to the committees that initiate definitions of what programs in their area can and can’t do and the maximum agencies can spend on them.

If the House and Senate can then agree on a resolution, the actual spending and/or tax cuts need only a majority vote in the Senate. So Democrats don’t have their usual chance to block bills they object to.

More U.S. Government 101 than perhaps any of you need. What matters more here is legislative strategy — not, one notes, an expertise our President brought to the White House or seems to be learning. But he’s got some high-level officials who have it.

Basically, when House and Senate leaders begin with a proposed budget as extreme as Trump’s, it sets the point from which they move toward the center, which may still be far from a true center that would satisfy, if not altogether please both Republicans and Democrats.

We’re still a long way from a budget for next year. But we’re not that far from the day when Congress must let the Treasury Department borrow more funds so that government can pay what it already owes.

The far-far right House Freedom Caucus says it won’t vote for any debt ceiling increase unless it’s packaged with spending cuts. The “leverage point” one member refers to is more than an idle threat.

The House Republican majority used it six years ago to force agreement on the across-the-board spending cuts and subsequent caps that will automatically kick in again if Congress and the President don’t agree to eliminate them or at least ease their blow.

What’s now called sequestration has already squeezed a range of programs that meet critical needs, including services and supports for low-income people.

Real dollar losses alone leave them with 13% less, CBPP reports. Factor in population growth — a likely measure of increasing needs — and losses rise to 18%.

Only so much blood you can squeeze out of a turnip. And the turnips we’re talking about didn’t have much, if any extra to squeeze.

Best hopes, I suppose, are Congressional Republicans who’ll support their state and/or local economies, e.g., farm state representatives, who know how SNAP increases demand. Also, of course, Democrats.

Their leaders have made very clear that they’ll not support a debt limit increase conditioned on tax cuts for the rich. Beyond that, the scene’s still murky.

Some recent reports suggest that Democrats may put other conditions on the bargaining table, rather than insisting on a “clean bill,” which Trump’s Treasury Secretary wants, but not, it seems, his Office of Management and Budget Director.

As if their boss didn’t generate enough turmoil in enough policy-relevant areas.

I’d like to end with something we progressives can do to push back against threats to even more programs than I’ve cited , e.g. Social Security Disability Insurance.

We surely can make our views known to our elected representatives — unless, of course, if we’re disenfranchised residents of the District of Columbia. We can donate to advocacy organizations, if we can afford to, join their social media campaigns, etc.

Obviously looking here for an antidote against a sense of powerlessness.

Well, I sez to myself, you recall the early days of the Reagan administration — how it tried to roll nearly 90 programs into five maxi-block grants, paired with a 25% funding cut and how much less bad things turned out in the version Congress approved.

Advocacy organizations formed issue-specific and linked coalitions. They, including those I participated in, shared information, developed strategies, lobbied and testified. I’m confident we made a difference.


What Next—For Us and At Us

February 6, 2017

The recent women’s marches prompted pundits and participants to raise a question that’s undoubtedly been on the minds of progressives since November 8. Now what?

One thing seems depressingly clear. We must shift even more of our energies and other resources to protecting gains achieved over many years.

This needn’t mean shelving recommendations for improvements. But it would seem we must, in some cases, reframe them lest we seem to take those gains for granted.

Beyond that a lot seems to depend a lot on whom we listen to. Some columnists of a left-leaning sort have advised Democrats (more or less equated with progressives) to adopt the Tea Party model.

That, say three former Congressional staff members, means organizing locally, targeting one’s own members of Congress and playing defense, Not of the sort I’ve just mentioned, but defense against anything the President supports.

The last of these is apparently a live issue among Democrats in Congress. They reportedly concur on building a mass movement, which will mean reaching out to and/or creating groups outside their usual constituency.

Those groups, one gathers, include the disaffected white, blue-collar workers now conventionally identified with the Rust Belt, though some analysts say the proper scope is rural and suburban, rather than geographic.

This sort of reaching out will involve more than better messages—and better messengers, some say. The Democratic party has allegedly sold out to — or become captive of — Wall Street and an intellectual elite. In other words, the wholesale revolt against our federal government had merit, though the main instigator and beneficiary didn’t.

Joshua Holland at Rolling Stone says forget it. The Democrats just had a bad candidate. That, however, fails to explain how the Republicans wound up with the candidate who’s now causing all sorts of commotion with executive orders — and again Republican majorities in both the House and Senate.

At this early point, opposing everything the President has set in motion seems the only reasonable response. The reported divergence among Congressional Democrats is forward looking.

Some don’t buy opposing everything Trump proposes as a strategic principle. They hold open the possibility of working with him (and presumably amenable Republicans in Congress). Developments of the last week or so seem to have prompted second thoughts about this.

Wonkblogger Steven Pearlstein argues for a somewhat different strategy. Democrats shouldn’t be “whipping up their own base up into a frenzy.” They should instead focus on getting a “handful” of Congressional Republicans to “defect” from the leadership’s agenda.

Now, all this is politics at a very high level, but it has bearing, I think, on what’s next — or ought to be — for advocates. Different roles for different folks, as seems always the case.

We do, I believe, have to look to national organizations and some state affiliates for reliable hard data and analyses. Some evidence notwithstanding, we’re best off with sound, fact-based arguments.

But they alone won’t win the day. We clearly need mass constituent pressure — calls, letters, demonstrations, etc. And we need stories — personal profiles and testimony on how policies we’re defending have made a difference, how what we’re opposing would cause harm.

At the same time, we do need continuing involvement in state and local policymaking. Among other things, state and local governments remain seed beds for progressive change. And at this critical moment, they can reasonably fear the practical consequences of more flexibility to cope with less money.

Nothing really new here, of course. But I perceive larger challenges — most, at this point, launched from the White House. One is keeping a focus on core principles while responding to outrages perpetrated here and there.

We won’t ourselves lose touch with these principles. But can we protest — even sometimes advance alternatives — without descending altogether into the particulars?

In other words, we need a coherent, compelling message to counterpoint and overarch our protests and other defensive actions.

If we’re against barring people more likely to be Muslims than not, repealing the Affordable Care Act, abandoning civil rights enforcement, [your choice here], what’s the vision we’re for?

Does that vision both speak to large swathes of the population and, at the same time, imply an actionable agenda that goes beyond the imperiled status quo?

The other big challenge I feel is burnout. New York Times columnist Charles Blow hints at it in saying that people already “feel deluged by a never-ending flood of national damage and despair.”

He’s optimistic, however. “American are not prone to suffering in silence,” he says. But can the grassroots activists sustain their demonstrations, petitions, telephone calls and the like for an extended period of time?

Can those most concerned about one issue or another come together in sustainable movement? Will advocacy organizations have the resources and strategy to engage with them and vice versa?

My inbox constantly reminds me that they’re trying. I get frequent emails from advocacy groups and coalitions urging me to contact my representatives in Congress, complete with tools and opportunities, e.g., hashtags, talking points, upcoming tweet chats and/or rallies.

We’ve got some bona fide grassroots organizing too. The Washington Post recently profiled a freelance writer/stay-at-home mom who sends daily text messages urging and equipping subscribers to call one of their members of Congress and tell him/her to oppose this or that pending action.

No shortage of fighting spirit now, that’s for sure.

Followers will note that this is far from my usual posts. I started it simply because I was (and am) wondering what next. Some of the high-level challenges I’ve cited pull me here and there — and sometimes exhaust me — as I think about what I should blog on.

Not, as I’ve suggested, an affliction peculiar to bloggers. We all, I think, face a what next for us and from the White House.


Local Nonprofits Tell DC Leaders Not to Govern With Hands Tied

February 1, 2017

Shortly after I published my latest blast against the District of Columbia’s triggered tax law, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and about 50 other local organizations sent a letter to the Mayor and Council urging them to take the same steps I characterized as first priority defenses against prospective federal spending cuts.

They also recommend changing another law, which requires the District to put any funds not spent by the end of the fiscal year into savings accounts. That makes them unavailable for a wide range of critical needs, including those that may lose federal funds.

The sign-on list is still open. If you work for an organization that would like to join, you’ll find the instructions at the end of the letter. A fairly quick and easy way to support progress in these times of extraordinary uncertainties.


Restaurant Associations Don’t Speak for the Industry on Tip Credit Wages

July 18, 2016

Some of you, I’m sure, feel I’ve gone on plenty long enough about the tip credit wage. But there’s a piece of the story I’ve merely hinted at — and one that merits a tad more.

It has to do with the commonly used term “restaurant industry” as the leading force against any increase in the tip credit wage. The “industry” generally means the National Restaurant Association and/or its state affiliates, including one in the Washington metro area.

Yet neither this NRA nor its affiliates represent all restaurants when they advocate against changes in the tip credit wage.

Nor did the then-head of the NRA when he persuaded Congress to freeze the wage, rather than let it rise, as it always had, when the federal minimum increased — this in exchange for no lobbying against the then-pending increase.

Basically, far from all restaurant owners benefit from the sub-minimum wage. Some that could, i.e., those that provide table service and perhaps have bars, choose to pay their tipped workers more than they have to.

Restaurant Opportunities Council United highlighted a handful in Taking the High Road — its best-practices guide.

Small Business Trends more recently reported no-tipping policies in at least 18 New York City restaurants. Some of shifted to service charges. Others to prices that factor in their higher labor costs.