Aftermath of the Great Debt Ceiling Debacle of 2011

Last summer, the American people learned that the only way their Congress could overcome ideological and partisan divisions and agree to a balanced deficit reduction plan was by threatening itself with a deficit reduction plan so severe members of Congress on both sides of the aisle would gladly accept an alternative plan.

We then learned that even under these circumstances, our Congress could not pass a balanced deficit reduction plan. With the looming sequestration, the technical term for that threat Congress imposed on itself, I thought it would be useful to reflect on the events of last summer and where things stand now.

First, a recap of last summer is in order. Spurred primarily by Tea Party Republican members of Congress, who refused to approve a routine increase of the debt ceiling without the Democrats agreeing to significant reductions in government spending, the United States Congress and the President entered into an intense end-of-session game of chicken as the clock ticked down. If Congress did not raise the debt ceiling, the government of theUnited States of Americawould default on its debt.

Initially, President Obama requested a clean vote to raise the debt ceiling without any spending cuts attached. When this vote failed at the end of May, Democrats began to realize that perhaps as a result of the 2010 midterm elections which brought a new breed of Republican toWashington, Republicans in Congress were serious in their political brinksmanship. The Republicans were serious when they said they would not raise the debt ceiling without tackling the deficit. If the credit rating was downgraded, so be it.

There were several high-profile attempts made to reach an agreement on deficit reduction that would satisfy the Republicans enough for them to grant us all the privilege of not having our credit rating downgraded. Vice President Biden entered into negotiations with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, who walked out of negotiations by the end of June citing their opposition to the Democrats’ insistence on “job-killing tax hikes.”

Seeking what was labeled a “grand bargain,” President Obama advocated the passage of a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan that included both spending cuts and new revenue. For a brief moment, it seemed the President had convinced Speaker Boehner to agree to the plan.

If the President had gotten his grand bargain, he would have scored a major political victory. The grand bargain would have allowed him to claim the mantle of a uniter and a deficit hawk, which would appeal to those valuable independent voters. But Speaker Boehner and the Republicans were not about to give Obama a political victory of this magnitude. However, partisanship  and divisions between the parties do not offer a complete explanation for why President Obama was unable to reach a grand bargain. Divisions within the Republican Party, particularly between the more old guard Republicans and the Tea Party Republicans who were swept into office in 2010, made such a grand bargain politically infeasible for Boehner. As Speaker of a House with many Republican freshmen who won their elections by vowing to serve as a bulwark against government spending and taxes, embracing the grand bargain would have undermined his reputation and credibility within that faction of his caucus. Moreover, he probably would not have been able to corral the necessary votes for its passage, which itself would be an embarrassment for the newly elected Speaker.

The House of Representatives, led by Speaker Boehner, passed the Republican-approved Cut, Cap, and Balance Act which would have authorized an increase in the debt ceiling only after a Balanced Budget Amendment was passed by Congress. Just as this partisan bill failed in the Senate, Reid’s plan passed through the Senate but was rejected by the House. Meanwhile, the Gang of Six tried and failed to come up with a solution.

Finally, at the end of July President Obama announced an agreement between his administration and congressional leaders. There would be $917 billion in spending cuts and deficit reduction coupled with a $900 billion increase in the debt ceiling in the first stage. For Standard & Poor’s, this was too little too late, and the agency downgraded the rating for the first time. In the second stage, a special joint committee of Congress would be tasked with finding another $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction by the end of November. If this Super Committee failed, across-the-board spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion and split between defense and nondefense programs would be triggered. The sequestration was intended to provide an incentive for the Super Committee to reach an agreement. On January 15th, 2012, the deadline had arrived, the Super Committee had not reached an agreement, and the automatic cuts were triggered.

The $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts are set to go into effect in January 2013. The first round of the defense cuts, totaling $109 billion, will go into effect on January 2nd. While Republicans criticize the President and his Democratic allies of playing politics with the defense budget, many Democrats have suggested that the Republicans brought these defense cuts upon themselves. Sequestration is no way to make policy. The Founders envisioned a legislative branch of government that was deliberative and reached conclusions on matters of policy through consensus building and compromise. The Democrats were willing to go to great lengths to reach a compromise, with the President even putting Medicare and Social Security cuts on the table. Republicans took defense cuts and tax increases off the table. It was under these dire circumstances that sequestration was employed, and I think it was justified by these circumstances.

The ultimate test of the wisdom of a political tactic is whether that tactic achieved the desired results. It is not completely clear what President Obama and his allies in Congress hoped to get out of the sequestration. This ambiguity is particularly apparent with respect to the defense cuts.While the President’s own Secretary of Defense has likened the automatic defense cuts to shooting ourselves in the head, the President has not said much about the cuts himself. So where do the President and his party stand on the issue?

The President recently announced that military personnel would be protected from the automatic cuts, but has dismissed Republican demands that he exclude other defense cuts from the sequestration. While his administration sounds the alarm about how devastating the defense cuts would be and continues to push Congress to reach a balanced agreement that would avoid the cuts, the President and his allies in Congress do not appear to be going out of their way to avoid them. Republican leaders in Congress have requested that Senator Reid pass a package of alternative spending cuts in order to avoid the automatic defense cuts. Disagreements over taxes, of course, continue to prevent the two parties from agreeing on an alternative package.

President Obama has discussed his vision for a “leaner” military and a light footprint strategy. We have seen the strategy used effectively inLibya. A new Obama campaign television advertisement criticizes Romney for favoring increases in defense spending, among other things. He may not say it outright, but it does not seem like President Obama is strongly opposed to these defense cuts.

With the sequestration, President Obama essentially forced the Republicans to choose between increases in tax revenue and cuts in defense spending. The Republicans hated both options, but between Grover Norquist’s no tax pledge and the Tea Party, the Republicans had their backs up against the wall. A significant number of Republicans in Congress had won their seats in 2010 after promising not to raise taxes and to go toWashingtonas soldiers in the war against government spending. I think a number of Republicans may have believed that the defense cuts were so severe that members of both parties would eventually reach some agreement to exclude them from the sequestration. Believing or hoping that the sequestration was an empty threat, Republicans refused to raise taxes and accepted the risk of sequestration. Raising taxes would have had definite political consequences whereas the political consequences of the defense cuts were deemed to be only hypothetical.

Despite Republicans consistently making defense spending a sacred cow that must be off the table in any discussion of spending cuts, dramatic defense cuts are imminent. If it was their aim to cut defense spending, and it seems like it was in fact their aim, then it can be said that President Obama and his allies in Congress successfully employed a shrewd political tactic to achieve the results they desired.

What is now called the Department of Defense was once called the Department of War. The wars inAfghanistanandIraqwere not defensive wars. NeitherIraqnorAfghanistanattacked theUnited States. NeitherIraqnorAfghanistanposed an existential threat to theUnited States. President Bush and his administration tried their hardest to convince us otherwise. Such a broad conception of defense has led to misguided wars and excessive military spending. Today, those who favor a leaner military and anAmericathat truly walks softly and carries a big stick are on the verge of making some progress. Unfortunately, it took the messy politics of sequestration to make this happen.

A streetcar named millennials

A proposed new streetcar would serve the bourgeoisie only.

A proposed new streetcar would serve the bourgeoisie only.

I admit, I had to look up the “millennial generation” to determine whether I fit in. A brief search reveals that the grouping is wide (1982-2000 give or take), and not clearly defined by a monolithic shared experience. We millennials certainly do not have the hefty experience of World War II to bind us, nor do we have the post-war upheavals in this country and the formerly colonized world in the 1960s and 70s, largely curtailed by counter forces (police and military efforts, the introduction of crack and subsequent drug war, cultural shifts towards capitalist materialism) by the time we were born. One could argue we all arrived at adulthood in the age of September 11th and the subsequent “war on terror.” Others argue that we “boomerang” back in with our parents after college due to few job opportunities, stagnant wages, rising costs, and our alleged laziness. A compelling event, movement, change, or war has yet to be offered to unify our so-called generation.

I find it hard to imagine that I have enough in common with someone born in the mid-1990s to constitute any sort of serious bond, but I will acknowledge, as politicians do time and again to win elections, we shall inherent our world – this country and especially the cities most of us live in. The new mayor of Providence, being relatively young himself, and a son of Guatemalan immigrants (appealing to millennials’ alleged open-mindedness about race) has taken his place in a line of political descendants of Obama looking to cash in on our political allegiance. I was in fact prompted to look into my generational coding after hearing of the mayor’s “Millennial Task Force,” a group of young professionals, selected as ambassadors of the administration to city residents from their generation. I decided to see what the “Force,” and the mayor’s administration, had on offer for those of us who will inherit this city.

Being a community organizer in Providence for the last four years made me skeptical of any promises or policies coming from Mayor Elorza and his team. From curbing police overreach, harassment, and violence, to affordable housing provision, and reversing trends towards gentrification, especially in the mayor’s old neighborhood, the West End, Elorza’s campaign and early administration failed to impress. Indeed, many of the long-time Providence residents with whom I organize vocally criticized what they saw as a campaign run by and for the affluent, predominantly white, East Side. Especially following the transmutation of the separate Brett Smiley and Elorza campaigns into one, proclaimed as the only way to defeat former mayor Buddy Cianci, city dwellers on the other side of route 95 saw a power grab that would not be to their benefit.

Besides a commitment to the “arts,” very loosely defined, Elorza’s major policy initiatives since taking office have been: a streetcar line running between Brown University, downtown and the hospitals in Upper South Providence, tax break agreements for developers looking to build and operate in the vacant land formerly occupied by route 195, and a receivership program, touted as a way to clean up and occupy all 500 or so vacant, nuisance properties dotting the city.

Arts festivals and so-called “development through the arts” appeal to many millennials as a public subsidy for their chosen careers – self-employment as consultants, entrepreneurs, and artists. These “careers” were originally subsidized by parents with financial means, degrees from preeminent colleges (of which RISD and Brown University are examples), and the privileges of being young and most often white. Now, there are indeed many young artists, largely of color, who grew up in this city, who participate in dynamic arts organizations based in the city and who have stories to tell and work to showcase that truly do represent Providence. Yet, the question lingers – who will benefit from the mayor’s commitment to arts development? From my experience at the Millennial Task Force’s open house in July, the field seems dominated by transplants brought to the city by Brown or RISD who have “decided” to make Providence their home and playground. Like Mayor Elorza himself claims to be, there are quite enough dynamic, artistic and incredible young people born and raised here. The mayor’s policies leave them with a choice between competing with transplants and the disproportionate credit and opportunity granted them by city hall, or pursuing their futures outside of Providence.

The streetcar proposal, the promotional materials for which claim to “attract 1,500 new city residents over 20 years,” was the topic of much gushing at the Millennial get together. I heard things as superficial as a streetcar is simply more “glamorous” than a bus, to even more suspicious claims that the streetcar could “unite different neighborhoods” across Providence. Superficiality dominated when it came to the ideas scrawled on stickies and posted to the boards around the room, with ideas like more gyms, a downtown grocery store, better lighting on downtown streets, and tiny houses. Not only are these ideas superficial and disconnected from the political-economic reality of most of the city’s residents, they are also extremely self-centered. The gyms are designed to feed the exercise culture of the young professional class, not make the city population in general healthier (plenty of poor people from around the city already hit Planet Fitness and seem to be doing fine there). The downtown grocery store is for the convenience of that tiny sliver of the population who can afford to live in downtown’s luxury and exorbitantly priced lofts and apartments. Lighting in the area is for those same young professionals’ running routes, and hints at the underlying race and class-based fear of criminal elements. Tiny houses are only for those who have the privilege to choose the type of house they’d like to live in; I heard little to nothing about those with no shelter at all. Are these “tiny houses” for them? Shouldn’t they have access to regular-sized houses?

Besides a commitment to “glamor” over policies and projects that would address material inequities in housing, policing, wealth, and transportation, we have the suspicious undercurrent of a desire to “unite” Providence’s different neighborhoods. Elorza indeed ran under the banner of “One Providence.” But we have never been “One Providence.” Since the city’s inception, through slave trading and race riots, to neoliberal development projects that subsidize the profiteering of wealthy developers, there has always been many Providences. For those millennials I heard saying they want to learn more about those newly discovered neighborhoods not on the East Side, I say, where you buy your over-priced groceries used to be the Cape Verdean and African-American part of town. Perhaps a history lesson, rather than a streetcar, would help you connect without ever having to leave the comfort of College Hill. If one rode RIPTA, despite its lack of glamor, they would see the homage to Snowtown and Hard Scrabble on the bus shelter in front of University Plaza. One has to question how and why these millennials want to “unite” neighborhoods, or “connect” with people in other parts of town? Without a deep historical and political understanding of what has driven change in every Providence neighborhood, and a commitment to those unglamorous political and economic realities that drive neighborhoods and potential neighbors apart, I would encourage people to stay right where they are.

Never in all of the pandering for the streetcar did I hear mention of its cost, until someone asked, condescendingly, “well, what else should they do with that money?”(over 100 million initially and over 3 million annually for operations). When I responded, “they could support affordable housing,” the retort was even more patronizing. “Well they’re not going to do that.” It is as if the political imaginations of members of the generation anointed to inherit the city begin and end with the platforms of slick, compradore politicians like Obama and Elorza, who tout their backgrounds and wave glamorous slogans and promises, along with a “pass” on racism in exchange for some cheerleading and a vote. My response to that millennial debutante is that they’re not “going to do that” because people like you will drink the Kool-Aid and get on the streetcar to nowhere, all the while shaking hands and agreeing with suits in city hall hoping for that city job in the office of Sustainability.

I went to this open house hoping to hear the analysis, vision, and yes, criticisms, of those in my so-called generation. Instead, I was confronted with a gaggle of yes men and careerists, who apparently had not been confronted with the political realities of Elorza’s trickle-down economic policies or his dismissal of structural racism in policing, housing, and transportation in the city and state. Or, if they had directly experienced the realities of these things, saw their only way out as pandering to a machine like the Elorza administration. Admittedly, some of these young people see rising through the ranks and following in Elorza’s steps as a means to raise up their whole communities; a noble and honest naivete I cannot ascribe to many of the other, predominantly white Brown and RISD grads in the room.

To those like the pithy stranger who wanted me to accept the profiteering and tired politics of men like Elorza and those “networking” the room for a cushy job, I say – please, respond to this polemic, try and defend your positions and ambitions, and watch as your edifice falls. To those genuinely interested in the better living of everyone in Providence, the city’s children, who have lived the brutal realities of policies like Elorza’s for two decades or more – organize, learn from your own and others’ experiences, join the fights being waged by experienced, committed organizers and organizations in this city. Refuse to limit yourselves to success as defined by Elorza and his “healthy gentrification” ideology sanctioned by Harvard Law School.

In the past, millenarian social movements against colonialism would struggle under the spiritual banner of a new coming, an apocalypse or sea change in the way of things. Let’s be a generation more like our millenarian forebears, who labored under domination, but dared to dream so far beyond the borders of their colonizers’ imaginations, that they tore the world open, and wrought a new one, with nothing but their hearts, dreams, and commitment to each other.