Let’s jump right to the big questions: Did President Barack Obama’s State of the Union do anything to resolve the deep differences in philosophy and policy on Capitol Hill? Was there any common ground? Did he lay the groundwork to find enough votes to stop the sequester, or better, to find a real budget solution?
I don’t think so. What’s more: I don’t think there is agreement on the nature of the problem, let alone any of the solutions.
As far as speeches go, it was a good one. The president pitched his case for where the country should go in terms of both philosophy and policy. My favorite line was this one: “A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs—that must be the North Star that guides our efforts. Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?”
This line should be inspirational: “A growing economy...must be the North Star that guides our efforts.” Yet it represents the deep divisions in U.S. politics because a growing economy cannot occur in an era of austerity.
A great example of this divide surfaced when Florida Sen. Marco Rubio gave the Republican response. “Unfortunately, our economy actually shrank during the last three months of 2012,” Rubio said. “But if we can get the economy to grow at just 4 percent a year, it would create millions of middle class jobs. And it could reduce our deficits by almost $4 trillion dollars over the next decade.”
But if you dig into the numbers, there is no evidence for that kind of statement. Economists for the Bipartisan Policy Center say the sequester will cost over a million jobs in 2013 and 2104. The total economy will likely drop from north of 4 percent GDP—the number Rubio used—to under 2 percent.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says it will be worse. He says a sequester will send the country into a new recession.
But even the nature of the sequester is a dividing line. The president put it this way: “In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars’ worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year. These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness. They’d devastate priorities like education, and energy, and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs. That’s why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as the sequester, are a really bad idea.”
But for Rubio and many of his Republican colleagues the sequester is only about one thing, the military, calling them the “president’s devastating cuts to our military.”
So where does Indian country fit into this narrative?
In Congress there is much talk of “pain” ahead. We are three weeks away from the sequester and about a month away from the expiration of the budget, last year’s Continuing Resolution. Indian Country will be the first to feel that pain with lost jobs or insufficient health care dollars.
Last weekend on ABC’s This Week, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said that he thought the sequester was inevitable. The best hope was that it would then be resolved three weeks later when Congress will have to cobble some sort of budget together (or the government will shut down). Another Oklahoma Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn, said Wednesday morning that the pain of sequester will change minds.
And to make it more complicated there are no longer two parties in this dance. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul gave the Tea Party response. He said the sequester doesn’t go far enough. “Not only should the sequester stand; many pundits say the sequester really needs to be at least $4 trillion to avoid another downgrade of America’s credit rating.”
That is the Republican strategy at this point: Go ahead and begin the sequester. Then when all hell breaks loose, negotiate.
Democrats are pushing two plans. Democrats in the House are pressing ahead with a plan of targeted budget cuts, equal to the sequester. But that plan is unlikely to even get a vote. A similar Senate effort will be released the last week of February. If that bill can get through the Senate, then, perhaps, it can be used as a template for a deal with the House. But getting a bill through the Senate will not be easy. There’s a reason there has not been a budget resolution from that body; the votes were not there.
The president said: “Most Americans—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—understand that we can’t just cut our way to prosperity.”
This is the key challenge. The country has to grow, it cannot just pretend that austerity is a solution. That means investing in programs that matter: Head start, schools, higher education, job training, programs that will deliver jobs in the future. The country must also deliver on the promises already made whether it’s the health care promised in treaties or Medicare for seniors.
A growing economy must be the North Star that guides these efforts. The country cannot afford to shrink.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up.