A Potential Austerity Crisis Is a Stupid Reason to Go After Retirement Security and Health Care

The latest news from the Republicans in Congress is that they seem to be edging slowly and delicately away from their fanatical opposition to any increase in tax revenue coming from the very rich. In some ways, this is a good thing—it’s a recognition of political reality, if mostly a rhetorical one. But it’s easy to overstate the importance of the apparent concessions they’re making, and why they’re making them.

What are Congressional Republicans actually saying? Well, they’re saying they’ll accept tax changes that don’t actually change tax rates on the top 2 percent, as voters overwhelmingly support—and in exchange they’re asking for big cuts to social safety net programs that voters don’t support. In short, they are “offering” to do very little about the actual tax issue in exchange for devastating concessions on an unrelated issue.

The austerity crisis we’re staring down—sometimes referred to as the “fiscal cliff”—has zero to do with Medicare, Social Security or Medicaid. It’s a set of changes in tax and spending that all kick in come 2013—changes that reduce deficits too quickly. (For more, check out this great set of questions and answers from the Washington Post.)

Indeed, as Dave Johnson notes, even using the term “fiscal cliff” is misleading:

The very term “fiscal cliff” misinforms and scares people…responsible media outlets should try to help the public understand complicated issues, not help scare and misinform. The public cannot help but get the impression that the country goes broke in a few weeks…this is really the opposite of what is happening.

Nearly everyone agrees that we should extend current tax rates on middle-class people rather than let them go up as they’re scheduled to do. Most people agree that we should end the Bush tax cuts that only go to the top 2 percent. And Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid are important programs with wide public support that aren’t affected at all by the end-of-year fiscal deadlines. So why in the world would anyone give a second thought to a “deal” that doesn’t end the upper-end Bush tax rates on income over $250,000, but does cut benefits? To be blunt, that would be stupid.

Republicans in Congress—and their allies in the corporate world and the press—are lying to us about what the crisis is and how we need to fix it. There shouldn’t be a “deal” on fiscal matters that keeps the Bush-era tax rates for income over $250,000 in place. And there’s no reason to consider a “deal” that cuts Medicare or Social Security.

It’s encouraging to see Sen. Dick Durbin say this morning that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security don’t need to be part of a deal to handle the end-of-year tax changes. A “grand bargain” that keeps tax rates on the rich at Bush-era levels and cuts Medicare benefits is a bad deal and one no member of Congress should accept.