Responding to the Obama Administration’s apparent decision to cut Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funding, Larry Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute says that progressives “are losing the argument at a higher level” about the budget in general, putting all programs and services at risk.
The fundamental problem, Mishel says, is a spending freeze on the discretionary non-security budget, while calling for certain investments within that budget, and giving up on moving the needle on taxes to any degree. “Spending has to be maintained as a share of GDP just to keep up these programs,” Mishel said, noting that inflation, wage increases and population growth all enter into that equation. “If you freeze spending, the population and economy has grown, that’s a net cut.” Mishel surmises that Obama is set to shrink the discretionary budget, through this freeze, by 32% over the next 9 years.
“If you want to increase spending in some areas, it has to come out of other areas,” Mishel continued. “The specifics are going to make people angry. But what I don’t think progressives understand, they’re not going to fare well on their issue because they’re being beat at a higher level.” Like I said, it’s a simple math equation. Budget reductions will have to come from somewhere, especially combined with an unwillingness to increase taxes.
Mishel takes issue with the Obama Administration’s messaging on the subject, being practically boastful about budget cuts. “He’s bragging to the Chamber of Congress about his discretionary budget being at the lowest level since Eisenhower. This is not the country we want to live in. It’s awful.” He related the Administration’s plan for investment in certain areas as akin to the “cut and invest” approach of the DLC in the 1990s. “And they never meant invest,” he added.
The entire notion of acknowledging fiscal responsibility before anything else amounts to operating on the ideological turf of the conservative movement, according to Mishel. “You try to pre-empt very awful things by doing awful things,” he said. You can see this in the approach of Congressional Democrats, not arguing about the need for budget cuts, but trying to direct those cuts more appropriately.
“I heard Nancy Pelosi last week, saying that everything they support will have to strengthen the middle class, create jobs and cut the deficit. You cannot merge a Blue Dog message with a progressive message and think it’s consistent,” Mishel said. “Everyone wants to salute being fiscally responsible. They should be saying we’re in a recession, and we’re never going to balance the budget until we get people back to work.” Mishel also highlighted the tax cuts just agreed to on a bipartisan basis. It’s impossible to say that the country cannot afford, say, LIHEAP funding, Mishel reasons, when the country just gave away hundreds of billions in tax cuts for the rich and lowering the estate tax. “They should have a graph, money from LIHEAP versus money from the estate tax deal. How do you say we can’t afford it?”
As to how to best hold off the actual cuts to these kind of programs, Mishel had this to say, “If people don’t get angry we’re going to get more of it.”