The Next Fight For The 99

Consider House Speaker John Boehner’s U-turn on a temporary extension of a payroll tax holiday a temporary retreat. The tea-party Republicans who lead Boehner show no signs of actually moderating their agenda, and that will make next year’s fight to continue the payroll tax for a full year no less intense than this week’s nail-biter.

We’re going to have to keep the pressure on congressional Republicans. When it comes to anything related to the economy, they are still in the hostage-taking business. They will still make unacceptable demands on behalf of their conservative and corporate overlords in exchange for the ability of ordinary Americans to have the wherewithal to make it from week to week.

It pays to remember how we got to this drama in the first place. For that the House Republicans themselves have given us a helpful guide: the resolution they passed on Monday affirming their support for a one-year payroll tax extension, continuation of extended unemployment benefits, and forestalling for two years a deep cut in Medicare reimbursements to doctors.

That resolution demands that in exchange for this that we “reduce spending from areas throughout the Federal Government, including a freeze on congressional salaries” and acquiescence on three important business priorities: ” (A) final approval of the Keystone XL pipeline;

(B) expensing for capital assets placed in service in 2012; and (C) drafting new regulations for boilers that are achievable and cost-effective.”

The first demand will undercut the whole reason for the payroll tax holiday, which is to add demand to the economy through increased spending. The Economic Policy Institute’s Andrew Fieldhouse wrote that Republican proposals to cut federal spending “would result in roughly 280,000 job losses—ironic, given that the purpose of the payroll tax cut is to create jobs. Someone should remind the GOP that the purpose of a pay-for is to offset the cost of a policy, not its impact.”

Plus, budget cuts in some agencies will actually increase the deficit, not reduce it. Imagine fewer Internal Revenue Service auditors catching tax fraud, or fewer Medicare investigators catching overbilling by doctors and hospitals.

Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo pointed out that the payroll tax break, unemployment benefits and Medicare “doc fix” together “cost a couple hundred billion dollars over the course of a year, and offsetting them via cuts to an already constrained budget is hard. … In the end, depending upon whom you ask, Senate Dem and GOP negotiators got within $60 billion and $90 billion of the total cost — but they couldn’t bridge the gap.”

But Democratic leaders have pretty much conceded on the larger frame of this issue by abandoning the one “pay for” that made the most sense: a surtax of about 2 percent on incomes in excess of $1 million. That would have placed the burden of offsetting the cost of these measures on the one segment of the population with the capacity to bear it—the one segment whose incomes have skyrocketed over the past decade as their tax burdens have hit record lows.

Democratic leaders and the White House have completely caved on the Keystone XL pipeline. By allowing language in the two-month extension that requires the administration to make an environmental ruling on the pipeline, which would run from Canada to the Gulf Coast, Democrats allowed Republicans to get away with one of their repeated attempts to have Congress dictate the terms of administrative actions of the executive branch. Earlier, the House passed legislation that would essentially strip the executive branch of its ability to make independent decisions on environmental policy based on expert, scientific analysis, and instead impose the whims of Congress (and the corporate lobbyists who own Congress) on the process. It is bad enough that the Keystone XL pipeline will only create a small number of jobs during its construction and is intended for exporting Canadian tar sands oil overseas; little if any oil would end up being used in the U.S. But the pipeline is a conservative nose in the tent of congressional micromanagement of the executive branch—a highly dangerous trend.

Which brings us to the innocuous sounding directive that the feds draft “new regulations for boilers that are achievable and cost-effective.” That’s in response to the Environmental Protection Agency’s anticipated ruling, which finally came out earlier this week, on reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants.

David Roberts at Grist writes, “There are still dozens of coal plants in the U.S. that don’t meet the pollution standards in the original 1970 Clean Air Act, much less the 1990 amendments. These old, filthy jalopies from the early 20th century, mostly along the eastern seaboard and scattered around the Midwest, are responsible for a vastly disproportionate amount of the air pollution generated by the electricity sector in America, including most of the mercury. They have been environmentalists’ bête noire for over 30 years now.”

The EPA’s new ruling would finally force these plants to adapt new technology to operate more cleanly or shut down altogether. The Republican directive is to keep these plants open and force no consequential changes in the amount of mercury and other pollutants released by these plants other than what the industry itself deems “achievable and cost-effective.”

So this is the deal the conservatives in the House, and their counterparts in the Senate, are offering the American people: You want an extra $40 or so in your biweekly paycheck? You’re going to have to accept a crippled federal government (including federal workers who won’t see a raise until at least 2014), a pipeline that puts environmentally sensitive parts of the country at risk for only a pittance of jobs, and the continued operation of outdated, coal-fired power plants that spew toxic chemicals into the air breathed by tens of millions of Americans.

It’s hard to have a merry Christmas when this is the kind of fight that lies ahead. The good news is that Christmas does remind us of the basic values we’re fighting for, that in the end it’s people who matter most. We can use this time to fortify ourselves for the fight ahead.


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