Can the Sequester be Stopped? Don't Count on the Middle Class to Do It

By Becky O'Malley
Friday March 08, 2013 - 04:44:00 PM

Good old John Conyers is at it again, cutting through the phoney baloney that perennially passes for political thinking in Washington.

If my failing memory serves, he was one of the small number of prescient members of the House of Representatives who co-sponsored a bill of impeachment against Lyndon Johnson in 1967 or ’68 as a way of trying to stop the war on Vietnam. Somewhere in my house I might still have the copy of the bill which I think Conyers’ office sent me at the time.

Wikipedia gives all the credit for that effort to Bella Abszug, another brave and outspoken congressperson, but I’m pretty sure John Conyers’ name was there too, along with that of Congressman Robert Drinan, a radical Catholic priest of the post-Vatican II generation which the current hierarchy is trying to forget.

Then in 1972 John Conyers sponsored a bill which would have impeached Richard Nixon. That one didn’t make it to the floor for a vote either, but later versions did. Nixon ended the discussion by resigning.

Here we are now, more than four decades later, and my email informs me (I haven’t seen it in print yet) that Conyers has filed a bill which would end sequestration, which is a fancy name for a childish concept that should never have been passed by our permanently confused Congress. 

We got this letter this week, signed by Rep. Alan Grayson, an outspoken liberal recently re-elected in Florida: 

“Last Friday, my friend Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill called the "Cancel the Sequester Act of 2013"—a bill that, not surprisingly, cancels the sequester. 

In case you haven't heard, the sequester is an endless series of irrational and cruel budget cuts. Fortunately, since Congress invented the sequester, Congress can also kill it. 

Here's the entire bill: 

"Section 251A of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 is repealed." 

That's it. That's the solution, in a single sentence. No loopholes. No self-imposed crises. Just one sentence. 

Join us by signing a petition in support of just-say-no to the sequester. 75,000 people already have.” 

Click here to add your name to this petition, and then pass it along to your friends. 

When I checked today, the total number of signers had climbed to well above 225,000, edging toward the half-million signature goal. 

Our congresspersons, particularly the Tea Partyers in the House, just love analogizing government budgeting to household finance, as inappropriate as the few smart economists who manage to get into the popular press have shown that concept to be. But from a Tea Party perspective, it’s just like a family putting a few dollars from every paycheck into the sugar bowl on the tea table—and eventually it’s supposed add up to a new TV for the front room. 

Of course, if that money had gone into an interest-bearing bank account (at least in the days before banks started doing their damndest to cheat their depositors) the TV would be paid for sooner. Savings invested increase faster, even in the public sector. 

Congress is foolish to put the country’s revenues in the proverbial piggybank, when they would multiply and defeat the recession if they were spent on public works which put money into consumer pockets. And the money being cut not only undermines consumer confidence, it potentially wreaks havoc on the poorest among us. 

Conyers’ bill latest probably is doomed from the start, since he’d need all the Democrats and even some Republicans to get the House to pass it. Almost all the Repugs and all too many Democrats don’t care much about what happens to the poor or even to the underpaid members of the working class, groups which are more and more ignored in discussions of how the global economy has gone wrong. 

I find it interesting that in three articles I read this week I detected a growing dissatisfaction among international public intellectuals with a political point of view, often articulated by President Barack Obama among others, that preserving some sort of hallowed middle class way of life should be government’s major goal. 

Michael Lewis, reviewing John Lanchester’s new novel Capital in the New York Review of Books, observes that as Britons took up American-style high finance: 

“…a brand-new social type was born: the highly educated middle-class Brit who was more crassly American than any American. In the early years this new hybrid was so obviously not an indigenous species that he had a certain charm about him, like, say, kudzu in the American South at the end of the nineteenth century, or a pet Burmese python near the Florida Everglades at the end of the twentieth. But then he completely overran the place. Within a decade half the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge were trying to forget whatever they’d been taught about how to live their lives and were remaking themselves in the image of Wall Street. Monty Python was able to survive many things, but Goldman Sachs wasn’t one of them.” 

In the London Review of Books, Israeli writer Yonatan Mendel characterizes Yair Lapid, whose new “There is a Future” party came in second in the recent elections in Israel, as representing his country’s consuming middle class and ignoring everyone else: 

“He was distinguishing between ‘those who give’, meaning ‘us’, successful individuals, the ones who make money, and ‘those who take’, meaning ‘them’, the unemployed, the Arab citizens and the Haredi Jews, all those groups who chose their poverty at our expense.” 

Sounds like Mitt, doesn’t it, but Barack Obama talks a lot about serving the middle class, too. 

Whoever that might be in this country… the Obama administration has stretched the boundaries all the way from families making little more than the minimum wage to those with a quarter of a million dollars in annual income . The Republicans pushed the top end, those fortunate folks who must be protected from tax hikes, up even further, to $400,000. 

All too often, protecting the middle class turns out to be just another version of the old truism “them as has gits”. It’s the bourgeoisie we’re protecting, in other words, still pretty comfortable after all these years, although those on the bottom can be in danger of slipping off the last rung of the ladder. 

And sometimes even the economically secure are left out of the middle class comfort zone. 

Ta Nehisi Coates on the New York Times op-ed page this week reflects, with appropriate ironic quotation marks, on the special problems African-Americans at all income levels face in participating in the ranks of middle-class privilege: 

“The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the ‘middle class,’ will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.” 

Whitaker, a well-known, well-off African-American actor, was falsely accused of shoplifting in the upper West Side deli which Coates and his African American family also patronize. 

Sequestration, another artificial political concept, turns out to rest comparatively lightly on the middle class, so it might not be the stick which gets Congress moving after all. The worst the middle class seems to have to worry about is longer security lines at airports, and even that won’t happen for a while. 

That’s why you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for Conyers’ bill to pass. He's always been ahead of the public with his clever fixes to problems they don't even recognize when they see them. As long as the sequester disproportionately harms the powerless, what difference does it make to the rest of us, after all?