Last August, New Orleans suffered the wrath of one of the worst hurricanes in the history of our country. Hurricane Katrina blew into town without apology and quite literally huffed, puffed and blew houses down. Only more disturbing than that childhood story scenario coming true, was the façade of the Bush administration’s projected American dream of a place where peace and equality prevail crumbling to show the ugly face beneath. Immediately the following storm, CNN began airing shocking footage of hundreds of thousands of Louisiana residents, mostly black and poor, trapped in squalid conditions outside the Superdome without food, water or medical attention for nearly a week.
It seems outrageous that the Bush administration and Congress would step forth only shortly after desperately trying to redeem their goodwill image to again legislate in a manner that can only be described as callous. Yet, the only unfathomable thing is that no one has taken much notice.
The Budget Reconciliation Bill, due to be voted on this month, will cut billions of dollars in Medicaid, food stamps, TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) and student federal aid. In addition to the $34.7 billion in original cuts posted to the bill, a new push would raise that figure by an extra $15 billion, equaling approximately $50 billion in cuts. The truly exceptional facet of the bill is how the $50 billion in entitlement spending cuts are juxtaposed with $70 billion in tax breaks for the wealthy. The bill has been tagged by MoveOn.org as the “reverse Robin Hood bill”—robbing from the poor to provide for the rich.
MoveOn.org is one group of more than a dozen contributing to The Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities, or ECAP. Among many other member groups, ECAP most notably includes the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United States Student Association (USSA) and ACORN. ECAP is a temporary coalition of those concerned with human needs and is headed by the same people who opposed President Bush’s Social Security reform plan. Though the group has had little time to form their opposition, they already have grassroots in 30 states across the country and have been collating working class constituents, including displaced Katrina victims, to meet with Congress members and urge them against the Budget Reconciliation Bill. The best hope ECAP has is to sway those moderate Republicans who sympathize with the working class and labor unions and are disenchanted with the tilting of the Houses to the iron-clad conservative right.
However, despite the momentum of this movement, appropriation committees have been studiously assembling the budget package. On October 26th, the House Agriculture Committee approved $3.7 billion in cuts to their portion of the FY2006 budget reconciliation package. Of this figure, $844 million will be cut from food stamps, depriving 300,000 food stamp recipients their benefits and denying 40,000 low-income children their automatic eligibility for free school lunches and breakfasts. The amendment passed with a 24-19 vote, ironically the same day that the Agriculture Department released a report showing that an estimated 38 million Americans in 2004 suffered from hunger because of financial problems. Also included in the Committee cuts were $1 billion to commodity programs and $760 million to conservation programs.
Agriculture Committee Chairman Goodlattee, hailed the cuts, saying that they adhered to “the long-standing tradition that agriculture has always been willing to do its part to ensure the fiscal well-being of the nation”.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee also recently wrapped up their contributions to the bill, voting to slash $11 billion from Medicaid, but attempted a paltry compensation by seeking $1 billion in low-income subsidies for heating bills. Medicare was also a potential on the amputating table, though that might have to wait until conference. “It just goes to show you the moral bankruptcy of this Medicaid bill that squeezes the poorest Americans in order to give tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans,” says Edward Markey (D-Mass).
There is also discussion of 2% in cuts across the board in discretionary spending, with the exception of defense and homeland security. This would affect a plethora of social programs aiding the poor and middle class, among them Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for working low-income families, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for people with disabilities, foster care programs, enforcement of child support laws and Head Start programs.
In the calm after the storm, President Bush vowed to tighten up on our domestic security in the face of natural disasters. Even though recently there had been talks to cut homeland security, that had been dropped because of its audacious negligence towards the recent events in New Orleans. That did not stop Congress members from instead shifting the weight of the cuts further onto social programs.
Immediately following the tragedy, GOP rushed back to the Halls of Congress to avoid the storm of criticism that had befallen Bush in the days after Hurricane Katrina. The budget bill was postponed indefinitely, Congress being squeamish at the idea of bringing it to light when they were under so much scrutiny in the hurricane’s aftermath. The House and Senate quickly passed a $10.5 Billion dollars emergency Katrina aide package, part of which included $2,000 debit card to each Katrina family. Only shortly after, Congress approved another package of $51.8 billion dollars, doling out a total of 62.3 billion in aid. Other aid packages are presently in the works. This would all seem to be acts of penance by the government for its previous cuts to FEMA, the downsizing of funds to shore up the levees and the federal debasement to coastal wetlands restoration programs (wetlands act as effective buffers to storms by absorbing floods that would otherwise pummel inland infrastructure).
Even though the aid packages are a little late for the one million displaced from the storm and the 1,056 confirmed dead, at least Congress’ act of atonement could be construed as the U.S. government finally taking responsibility for the welfare of its people. However, within only a month of Katrina, even as 50,000 victims remained without medical insurance and many more than that without permanent or stable residences, conservative members of the House and Senate regrouped to resuscitate the budget bill. The new effort included a push to raise the initial figure of cuts from $35 billion to $54 billion to offset the Katrina aid packages. It may be important to note that the Iraq war, which has totaled somewhere in the ballpark of $200 billion to date, has never been offset.
Opportunists in Congress also used the tragedy to further advocate for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling to alleviate concerns about soaring prices at the pump. According the government’s own 2004 EIA report, if the Refuge is opened to drilling this year, oil wouldn’t flow for another decade and at peak production best estimates predict it will only make a difference of about a penny per gallon in 2025.
House Resources Committee head Richard Pombo (R-CA) even drafted a plan to include provisions in the budget to lift the moratorium of offshore drilling on the Outer-Continental Shelf (OCS) of the U.S., the same area that was ravaged by Katrina. The damage to rigs and refineries in Louisiana from Katrina caused a 6 billion gallon oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico, foreshadowing the potential danger of increasing oil production in that area. Pombo also included an amendment to sell of 15 National Parks for energy inventory and development. Even though Pombo has withdrawn the selling of National Parks, citing it as a gag, provisions to open the OCS and ANWR to drilling remain in the House version of the budget reconciliation package.
The budget reconciliation bill will not ameliorate the staggering deficit, but in fact will only exacerbate it. According to an article in the bipartisan paper, Congress Daily: “…if Republicans can successfully complete work on the measure this year, they will follow with a $70 billion tax-cut reconciliation bill that will increase the deficit anyway, by $20 to $30 billion.” Once again, this does not include the contribution of military operations overseas to the deficit. With that added, it is expected to soar into the trillions in the next five years.
The onward march with the budget seems an impetuous step by a party seized lately by turmoil, beginning with the crippling criticism of Bush’s catatonic reaction to Katrina and ending most recently with the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby in a CIA leak case. Other scandals have added to the troubles of the Republican party as both House Majority Whip, Tom Delay of Texas and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist currently face serious allegations in court. It seems the GOP is desperately grasping for the upper-hand with the budget, not allowing a misfortunate calamity and the futures of tens of thousands of poor and powerless constituents sway them on their party-line agenda.
The budget is simply a cornucopia of bad things—and bad tidings to the Katrina survivors. However, conservatives are persevering despite withering public opinion. Though the next round of elections may bring a change, should the budget reconciliation bill be approved this year, its effects on the environment, the economy and the working-class American public will be felt years and perhaps decades from now. When the votes on the budget reconciliation bill are tallied in this week in the House (it already passed in the Senate, making the House the maker or breaker of the Bill), it will become apparent who works for the best interest of the American people, and who does not.