Don't ask the poorest to pay off our debt
By Donna Brazile on July 27, 2011
© CNN International
Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee, a nationally syndicated columnist and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000 and wrote "Cooking With Grease."
My fellow Americans: In a matter of weeks you have become studied on the issues of budgets and deficits. You've also formed opinions on these issues, and these opinions are reflected in poll after poll. Isn't it strange that Congress has yet to listen?
Recently, I reviewed a poll completed in late May for the Pew Charitable Trust. They found that a majority of Americans believes the government is "generally helping the wrong people." This discontent stems in part from the perception that the government helps those who need it least -- the rich rather than the middle class or the working poor.
A majority of citizens, 54%, think their government helps the rich economically "a great deal." Much smaller percentages of the public say the same about "the poor, 16%; "the middle class," 7%; or "people like you." Anyone.
Because of a loophole, hedge fund managers are likely to pay a lower rate of taxes than their secretaries. Warren Buffett, one of the world's richest men, has spoken out about the injustice of the fact that his tax rate was less than the cleaning lady's. Both parties agree that reform of the tax code is necessary, but one thing should be clear: As it stands, the tax system disproportionately benefits the wealthiest Americans. Passing a debt deal that exclusively cuts programs that benefit middle- and lower-income Americans will only exacerbate this difference.
Another fact that has been largely ignored in this debate is the origin of all this debt. We are, after all, raising the debt limit to pay for things we've already bought or purchased.
Let's take an earnest look at who broke the bank. This week, Ezra Klein, in The Washington Post, reported that the cost of policies that began under George W. Bush top out at more than $5 trillion -- this includes long-term and recurring spending from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, decreases in revenue like the Bush tax cuts, as well as additions to the structural deficit like the Medicare prescription drug plan. The cost of policies beginning under President Obama top out at $1.44 trillion, and these policies are largely one-off, short term, or non-recurring spending -- like the stimulus package.
Americans are worried about whether their shot at the American dream is slipping away. We are at the point where we worry most about achieving economic stability rather than getting rich. We are in agreement the government gives the rich better breaks than anyone else in our country.
Let's take a moment to think of the working poor, those among us who live not just from paycheck to paycheck, but who go hungry at the end of every month before their Social Security, veterans or unemployment benefits checks arrive. By the way: My dad is a retired janitor who relies on his Social Security and veteran benefits each month.
That's exactly what more than 60 leaders of Christian denominations and religious organizations did this last week, when they joined in an open letter called a "Circle of Protection," which urged President Obama to protect the poor.
Their statement read, "As Christian leaders, we are committed to fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice. ... Budgets are moral documents, and how we reduce future deficits are historic and defining moral choices.
They told the president: "As Christians, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare. We look at every budget proposal from the bottom up -- how it treats those Jesus called 'the least of these.' (Matthew 25:45).
"They do not have powerful lobbies, but they have the most compelling claim on our consciences and common resources. The Christian community has an obligation to help them be heard."
It wasn't only the Christian community that signed the "Circle of Protection" letter. In addition to the 60 leaders of Christian faiths, several heads of development agencies plus leaders of other faiths signed on. Over 5,000 clergy signed the original document and 30,000 average citizens have signed it online since its publication.
It is the working poor who will be hurt first, and hardest, if we default on our debt. Millions of Americans live on less than $1,000 a month. They depend on their Social Security or veterans checks to pay their rent. Come August 2, they may find themselves in danger of eviction if they don't pay up -- because the U.S. Congress refused to pay our own bills.
Republican leaders must understand that we can't make the least among us, who have the least, bear all of the burden. Not while the top 1% continue to benefit disproportionately, allowing them to capture 20% of the nation's earned income.
We know tough days are ahead. Americans have demanded, after the crash of 2008, that government live within its means. But, we never meant that our grandmothers and grandfathers, our war veterans, each of whom sacrificed all their lives to enable you and me to come down through the years, should pay the debt.
Are we to ask them to sacrifice what little they have, while some in Congress vehemently defend tax benefits for the wealthiest Americans?
For over two years now, most of the Republicans in Congress have listened to their party's donors and not to their constituents who live on Main Street. It's important that Americans make their voices heard before it's too late.
May Congress vote on and pass a balanced approach to reducing our nation's debt and obligations.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna Brazile.