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"It will take money and fiscal tools and policies to create the kind of investments in renewable energy infrastructure that would allow us to preserve a livable climate," writes Atcheson. "Pay-go makes that kind of investment more difficult." (Photo: House Dems / flickr / cc)

With Self-Inflicted Pay-Go Rule, Democratic Victory in 2020 Just Got Harder

Is Pelosi doing the Republican's work for them?

John Atcheson

The day after I wrote this, "… Pelosi, Schumer and Hoyer are doing everything in their power to keep the progressive insurgency in check, and keep their neoliberal/corporate money machine in power," Nancy Pelosi and the neoliberals in Congress committed political harikari and gutted the entire Democratic Party, by making "pay-go" a part of the House rules.

What this means is that a piece of legislation must offset costs, either by cutting somewhere else or by raising revenue.  On the surface, this seems nothing less than prudent. In fact, it is already the established practice in the House. But in terms of politics it is the most colossally stupid idea to appear in a very long time.  It’s also morally bankrupt.

Politics aside, paygo is morally bankrupt

Pundits and the press are reporting on Paygo as an intra-party fight  … with Pelosi and the "adults" coming out on top, and the progressive insurgents losing.  But here's the deal: the real conflict is between having a viable life-sustaining climate, and having one that cannot support civilization as we now know it.  It’s between having a health care system that delivers health to the people, not wealth to the pharmaceutical corporations and the health insurance industry. It's between developing an economy that benefits us all, versus one that exclusively benefits the top 1 percent.

Climate change, in particular, is an existential threat that must be tackled immediately.  It will take money and fiscal tools and policies to create the kind of investments in renewable energy infrastructure that would allow us to preserve a livable climate.  Pay-go makes that kind of investment more difficult, and it makes propping up the old interests like fossil fuel companies easier.  Of course, Pelosi already sabotaged the climate effort by setting up a weak sister select committee with little authority and even less power.

The thing is, these investments would pay for themselves many times over, but pay-go—with its myopic focus on the short term—obscures that fact.

We face monumental challenges, and each of them has a moral and ethical component that is far more important than the political horserace the press loves to talk about.

We need to completely revamp our health care system. We need to restructure our fiscal policies to spread prosperity to all, not just a few CEOs. We need to rebuild our national infrastructure, which is crumbling around our collective feet. We need to restore a semblance of democracy to our elections. And finally, we need to launch an unprecedented national and global effort to save us from the planetary devastation that would come from a climate that is just 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.  On our present course, we're headed for 4 degrees warmer or more.

These could be complimentary goals.  The fiscal, technological and social justice challenges can be met in the context of a national Green New Deal that creates well-paying jobs, not just McJobs; that uses fiscal tools to cut carbon while spreading wealth more equitably; that rebuilds infrastructure in a more sustainable way.  The opportunities for synergy are nearly unlimited.  And the politics of that kind of effort could ignite a progressive revolution that would sweep Democrats into power and make it a majority party once again.

But even if you're ignoring the moral and existential challenges we face and—like most of the mainstream media—reporting on pay-go in the context of the political horse-race, it’s still a stupid idea.

Doing the Republican’s sabotage for them

For the last several decades, the political war between the Democrats and Republicans has gone essentially as follows.  When Democrats were in power, Republicans screamed at the top of their lungs about the danger of deficits, not because they actually cared about deficits, but because they wanted to prevent Democrats from doing anything that might expand government's powers, particularly in manner that suggested government was capable of doing anything positive.

Having constrained and discredited the Democrats, they often regained power, and when they did, they ignored fiscal prudence and exploded the deficit. Doubt that? Check the facts. Since Reagan, Republican administrations have presided over the biggest increases in the deficits, and the same is true when Republicans controlled Congress. And why did they create deficits? Because for the most part, they gave massive tax cuts to the uber wealthy, special interests and corporations.

The explosion of the deficit by Trump and the Republican congress as a result of their tax cut for corporations and the rich is just the latest example of their hypocrisy.

So, when Democrats have been in power Republicans were all about fiscal responsibility, deficit scolding, and prudence – mostly with an eye to preventing Democrats from doing anything popular.  However, when they've controlled the budget, it's giant tax giveaways to the rich, exploding deficits notwithstanding.

Now, along comes Pelosi, and she’s decided the Democrat's best move is to do the deficit scolding—with the constraints they create—for the Republicans.

The final political issue around pay-go is a little more subtle, but no less important.  The fact is, Democrats haven't won an election in decades; Republicans have lost them.  As I noted above, Republicans have been engaging in a decades long strategy to discredit government.  But they've also used a well-funded campaign to create scapegoats to keep the attention off the fact that economic policies like "trickle-down" and "supply side" don't work.  Since before Reagan, Republicans have been creating and harnessing issues around hate, fear, jingoism, xenophobia, sexism and genderism to distract and divide us. Their campaign has created an inchoate rage among many Americans, particularly non-urban whites and those from rural areas who have been left out of any economic gains we've seen.

Democrats have been loath to confront the hate machine, just as they've been reluctant to champion a New Deal-style government that represents the people over the plutocracy. This means that historically, real progressive voters were cynical, disaffected, and less likely to vote than they might otherwise have been.

Conversely, the anger and rage manufactured by the Republican fear machine, creates a constituency that is inflamed, uninformed and passionate.  They show up, they vote, and as a result, they win.  The only way they lose is when Republican policies are so overtly pro-oligarchy, or so explicitly damaging to the country—as with Bush's recession and his Iraq folly—that they arouse a sufficient degree of fear and loathing among the rest of the disaffected that they also show up and vote.

The 2018 midterms were one of the Democrats' first real victories, won by the positions they advocated, not by the fear and loathing created by Republican overreach.  Trump's two-year reign of error and terror were sufficiently shocking that progressives ran for office, progressive ballot measures populated many ballots, and progressive citizens showed up and voted.  As a result, Democrats won.  Even the neoliberals seemed to understand that the tide had turned, as many who'd run from Obamacare in the disastrous 2014 mid-terms, ran on it in 2018.

So just as the Democrats had the opportunity to develop a platform that addressed the needs of people and to become a majority party again, Pelosi and the neoliberals imposed pay-go on the party, making the kind of bold initiatives that could build on 2018's progressive momentum much more difficult, and creating a giant buzz-kill for the progressive energy that could have saved their party.

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John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson. John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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