Striking a Balance on the National Debt

The new Congressional Black Caucus budget commission says that we need to address the federal deficit -- but also protect the needs of the poor.

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Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (Getty Images)

Just about everyone in Washington these days is busying themselves talking about America's debt, plugging their ideas as the surefire solution to trim the deficit. In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Obama offered belt-tightening proposals based on the recommendations of his bipartisan fiscal commission. Last week, House Republicans introduced a bill to sharply curb federal spending. But -- despite those photos from countless Tea Party demonstrations, of children holding signs gloomily bemoaning their future debt -- for most Americans, budget deficits aren't high on their list of concerns.

According to a November CBS News poll, only 4 percent of Americans consider the deficit to be the country's most pressing issue. Yet Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, says that for African Americans in particular, the federal deficit and debt are downright critical. "Right now our national debt payment is erasing money from programs that vulnerable populations desperately need," he told The Root in an exclusive interview, framing the issue as one that determines government provision for things like safe infrastructure, food programs for the poor and health care for seniors.

The CBC is bringing this perspective to the debate through the creation of its first-ever budget commission. Composed of top African-American economists, the Commission on the Budget Deficit, Economic Crisis, and Wealth Creation convenes today on Capitol Hill with recommendations for addressing the growing deficit without harming low-income communities. The CBC will use the commission's findings for a caucus budget plan that it will submit to Congress and the Obama administration.

"It is extremely important to have a budget proposal that comes from the vantage point of poor people," said Cleaver, arguing that most budget reports make wholesale spending cuts without considering how they affect the economically disadvantaged. "Despite the fact that you don't hear much about minorities and poor people in Washington anymore, you can expect the CBC to still talk about what happens to them."

Although the CBC presents an alternative budget on the House floor every year, this time around it's taking special care to publicly state its priorities in advance of the president's budget, which comes out in three weeks. "We're going to proactively deal with the issue before it is front-page news around the nation," said Cleaver, who is getting additional legislation-drafting support thanks to the new position of CBC policy director, held by 32-year-old Brandon Garrett. "This year we just can't afford to be reactionary."

"It always seems that when it comes time to cut, the most vulnerable -- the poor, children and senior citizens -- end up being the first to have their services reduced," said Gaskin. For him, Republicans lost all credibility for handling the deficit by insisting on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, which he says will only add to the nation's debt. "It never seems to be a shared sacrifice. The rhetoric is always to try to demonize people who are struggling."

Putting it bluntly, Gaskin says that given extreme economic hardships in the country, people shouldn't even be talking about actually balancing the budget now. "Most economists would argue that when the government pulls back on spending during a recession, all it does is make the situation worse," he says. "We should try to get the economy back in line by getting demand up, improving consumer confidence, investing in our infrastructure and improving our manufacturing base."

Cleaver adds that the CBC will not support Republicans' proposed across-the-board cuts, especially to the departments of Education, Labor and Transportation, because investments in those areas are critical to job creation and preparation. "We approved the stimulus act, not because we wanted to go to our home districts and get cussed out at town-hall meetings, but because the economy needed to be stimulated," said Cleaver. "This is not the time to go in and start ransacking, for example, the Labor Department's budget. We've got to create jobs for Americans."

Cleaver is particularly against cuts to Medicare, even reductions that are unrelated to the actual administration of services. With House Republicans wielding the potential to vote against funding the health care reform law -- which includes billions of dollars for community health centers in underserved communities -- he's simply unwilling to tamper with the program designed to help senior citizens. Besides, in many states, such as his native Missouri, funding shortages have the program in trouble. "With all these uncertainties," he said, "why in the world would we want to start cutting Medicare?"

What federal services, then, is the Congressional Black Caucus willing to cut back on? The caucus is holding off on giving an official position until its budget commission presents its recommendations, but Cleaver offered his personal view that there are numerous excesses in the defense budget.

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