Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Wisconsin & the House Budget Bill

There was a lot of sound and fury in the House of Representatives last week and there still is in Madison this week. Its worth looking at what they have in common.

In both places, majorities were elected on pledges to cut spending and lower the deficits. Say what you want about whether the federal and state deficits are subterfuges for political power plays -- these majorities were won fair and square. They have a right to act on the things they campaigned on. Will state legislators throughout the heartland stay outside of state lines for two years until the next election? Do they think voters will reward them at the polls for this behavior? How would progressives react if Tea Party activits had blocked the doors of the House so members could not vote on the health reform bill last year?

Another commonality is that in both places the majorities have overreached, undercut their legitimacy, and engaged in politics as usual that is not befitting of the seriousness of the times. In Wisconsin - the union busting legislation Governor Walker insists on can't be justified by the magnitude of the deficit problem, is unnecessary since the unions have agreed to concessions, and is blatantly crafted to reward friends (the police who supported Walker in the last election) and punish opponents (like the teachers). Having engaged in bare-knuckle politics right out of the gate, Walker will have no credibility when he needs bipartisan support to do much tougher things down the road.

The budget cutting engaged in by the House last week was also tinged with politics -- the debate was not a principled discussion about the role of government, but rather an exercise in labeling for cuts or elimination programs the majority did not like (such as support for family planning) and protecting programs they do (such as Army sponsorship for NASCAR). The new majority may be congratulating themselves for meeting an arbitrary goal for cutting federal discretionary spending (which amounts to about 12 percent of the budget), but this performance undercut their credibility for dealing with the far more difficult issue relating to entitlement spending that must be addressed to have any meaningful impact on the deficit.

The opening acts of how the public and their representatives are adjusting to the new realities of the times are not promising. Genuine fiscal crises loom in the states, the feds need a new funding bill by March 4, and the federal debt limit will be reached this spring. Skilled and serious leadership will be needed to navigate these landmines.

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