Not all Democrats share Obama’s budget priorities

Analysis: The Congressional Progressive Caucus releases an alternative budget, hoping to shape Democratic Party’s agenda

A protest with the Democratic Progressive Caucus and furloughed federal employees on Capitol Hill in Washington last October.
Evan Vucci/AP

There’s no shortage of news coverage when Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and his Republican colleagues in the House release their own version of a national budget, despite the fact that the document has little chance of being passed. But when the 70 liberal Democrats of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) do the same, it passes largely unnoticed in the media — thereby limiting the scope of the debate presented to the U.S. public.

This year, the CPC’s “Better Off Budget,” released Wednesday, focuses on reversing what it sees as the self-inflicted wounds caused by Congress’ obsession with deficit reduction in recent years. Instead, the CPC advocates using hundreds of billions in new federal spending to, by its estimate, create 8.8 million jobs by 2017. Its budget would enact a three-year fiscal stimulus focused on infrastructure improvements; workforce training and investment for the long-term unemployed; aid to states to rehire public safety and health care workers; and seven new direct employment programs for education and public works projects.

The CPC would also cancel the sequestration spending cuts that have cost hundreds of thousands of public-sector jobs, along with cuts to food stamps and federal unemployment insurance enacted in the past year. And federal workers, who have dealt with a pay freeze for the past three years, would get a 4 percent raise.

Such measures would dramatically raise the deficit and national debt in the near term — an option that is anathema to both the Republicans and the Obama administration. But the CPC believes its budget would generate enough revenue over time, through both job growth and new taxes on the wealthy and corporations, to bring the debt lower as a share of GDP by 2024 than it is in President Barack Obama’s budget.

The Better Off Budget envisions profound social changes, including a public health insurance option and waivers for states to implement their own single-payer programs. It imposes a $25-per-ton carbon tax, rebating some of the revenue to low-income families to protect against energy price spikes. It envisages an end to the war in Afghanistan and reduced defense spending going forward, and calls for comprehensive immigration reform. It also requires the president to disclose the total intelligence budget for the first time, changes campaign finance rules and keeps Social Security off the table in budget discussions. In fact, the Progressive Caucus would expand benefits and pay for them by lifting the cap on payroll taxes that fund the program.

Despite the popularity of some of these ideas — the idea of taxing large financial institutions to pay for their own bailouts even has bipartisan support — the CPC’s budget is unlikely to be treated by the media as a coherent program proposed by a significant faction of Congress. “The media tends to mostly focus on the two dominant opposing forces: the administration’s budget and the House [Republican] budget,” said Jared Bernstein, economist with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a former Obama White House official. That narrows the set of alternatives being presented to the public.

The media “has decided that the Republicans should be taken seriously, whereas the Progressive Caucus should not,” said economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Baker believes that pattern of coverage helps shape policy choices. “Getting taken seriously by major news outlets is like oxygen for these politicians,” Baker said. “This means that ambitious politicians have a very strong incentive not to hang out with the Progressive Caucus types and instead move to the right.”

But the tide may be turning. Last year, the CPC budget did receive coverage in such places as The New York Times, The Washington Post and “Real Time With Bill Maher,” which Bernstein believes may have helped press the Obama administration to adopt some of the CPC’s themes this year.

Progressive Caucus officials, while happy that the president dropped cuts to Social Security and other deficit reduction measures, believe their budget builds on his approach by front-loading spending for jobs.

They’re also hoping the timing of the release will work in their favor. Ryan’s House Republican budget has not yet been released, meaning that for now, Obama’s own budget is the only one with which the CPC draft is competing. 

Still, the CPC budget is unlikely to be put to the vote in Congress this year. Typically, the CPC gets its chance when the House passes a budget. But spending levels have already been set in a bipartisan deal between Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. It’s unclear whether Ryan will even introduce a full budget of his own, or if Republicans will simply bide their time in hope of returning to Capitol Hill in greater numbers after November’s midterm elections.

The main purpose of the CPC budget, in fact, is to raise the profile of liberal priorities in the public consciousness. On Tuesday, Florida Democrat Alex Sink lost a special election for a winnable House seat, after being criticized by her Republican opponent for suggesting an increase in the retirement age. The CPC budget offers an alternative vision based on the promise of improving Americans’ quality of life. Its advocates will argue that it’s just what the Democrats need as they go to the polls later this year.

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