Robert B. Reich, a co-founder of The American Prospect, is a Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. His website can be found here and his blog can be found here.
It's time to strike the term "fiscal
responsibility" from responsible political rhetoric. Few terms in public
discourse have moved as directly as this one has from imprecision to
meaninglessness without any intervening period of coherence.
Democrats should draw a bright line: No tax cut. Period. The surplus should be used instead for the three things regular working families need most: affordable health care (including prescription drugs), child care, and better schools.
Instead Democrats are putting all their energies behind keeping Bush's tax cut closer to the $1.2 trillion they squeezed it down to in the Senate several weeks ago rather than the $1.6 trillion passed by the House. The $1.2 trillion "was a great victory for us," one prominent Democratic senator assured me recently. "In the end, if we can just keep 51 votes together, we'll triumph."
One party claims that the budget surplus will be small and that the most important goal is to eliminate the debt. The other says the surplus will be big and we can do ambitious things with it. You'd be forgiven if you thought that the first party was the Democrats and the second the Republicans. But it's actually the reverse. The Democrats are marching under the banner of fiscal austerity, and the Republicans proclaim this the era of large ambition.
Alan Greenspan is pushing on a wet noodle. The Fed has repeatedly cut interest rates since January and nothing's happened which means that we shouldn't expect this week's half percent rate cut to have much impact either. Even figuring in the normal time lag between a rate cut and response, the fact is this economy just isn't responding.
Luckily the car has two accelerators. If the Fed's monetary policy isn't enough, there's fiscal policy. This week, the president lent his support to a stimulus package of between $60 billion and $75 billion in the form of additional tax cuts and spending.
Senate Democrats have managed to whittle George W 's tax cut from $1.6 trillion to $1.2 trillion. Big deal. Last year, Bill Clinton vetoed a $700 billion tax cut. And once the Senate tax bill goes to conference with the House, it's sure to be back up there where Bush wants it.
Democrats can't fight Bush's tax cut with nothing but an admonition that it's "too large." They need to put something else on the table that's important to working Americans -- and which won't be possible if the surplus is used for Bush's tax cut. That something is universal health care.