Congress raises debt ceiling, avoids default

But agreement on spending cuts without more revenue splits Dems, worries LGBT and AIDS groups

Rep. Tammy Baldwin
Rep. Tammy Baldwin

Lisa Keen  |  Keen News Service

lisakeen@mac.com

The U.S. Senate gave final Congressional approval Tuesday, Aug. 2, to a bill raising the nation’s current $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by $2 trillion. But the bill also calls for $2 trillion in federal spending cuts, that worries LGBT and AIDS organizations concerned about the survival of safety nets and programs of specific interest to the LGBT community.

“When I hear these numbers, I worry what it will mean for the social services safety net all over the nation, including LGBT organizations that are serving the most needy in our community,” said Lorri Jean, executive director of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, the largest LGBT community center in the country.

“And when I hear talk of striking a deal that includes no new taxes, at a time when taxes are already at their lowest, it seems clear that poor and vulnerable Americans of all sexual orientations and gender identities are being sacrificed,” Jean said.

That has been the reaction of many to the debt ceiling agreement this week, including two of the four openly gay members of Congress.

The final agreement, called the Budget Control Act of 2011, raises the nation’s debt ceiling enough to enable the government to borrow the money it needs to pay its obligations through 2012. But it also requires the government to cut its deficit by that same amount — $2.1 trillion — over the next 10 years.

The legislation also places caps on discretionary spending and allows “adjustments” to those caps only for “emergency appropriations, appropriations for the global war on terrorism and appropriations for major disasters.”

Funding to fight bullying in schools, to prosecute hate-motivated crimes or to increase research to fight breast cancer or AIDS would not seem to fall in the categories allowing for adjustments.

The legislation does not specify where the cuts are to occur but rather sets up a special 12-member bipartisan joint Congressional committee to propose them. If that committee fails to identify cuts of at least $1.2 trillion by Nov. 23, then a “trigger” kicks in and across-the-board cuts are made in all programs to the tune of $1.5 trillion.

Various political analysts say the legislation is addressing the immediate, urgent need to fund the government. The debt ceiling issue has been an urgent focus of Congress and the White House for the past several weeks, with a looming threat that the government might not be able to send out checks to Social Security recipients, military personnel and creditors.

“Our country was literally on the verge of a disaster,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Tuesday, just before the Senate voted 74 to 26 on the measure.

The president signed the measure into law within hours.

But many political analysts this week were also saying the agreement’s proposed cuts in spending could stall economic recovery from the three-year-old recession. Among other things, the cuts will likely mean no efforts to relieve the 9.2 percent unemployment rate and it will mean reduced federal funding to already-strapped state and local budgets.

Although treated as a routine procedure by previous administrations — including that of Republican President George W. Bush — raising the ceiling on how much the nation can borrow to pay for its expenses became a volatile political struggle for Democratic President Barack Obama.

Republicans have largely pushed for cuts in spending, while Democrats have largely pushed for increasing revenues. Most analysts say the agreement — which identifies no increased revenues — is largely a political victory for Tea Party Republicans whose mantra is “Taxed Enough Already.”

Sen. Reid criticized Tea Party members, saying their insistence on no new taxes — also referred to as revenues — was “disconcerting.”

“The richest of the rich have contributed nothing to this,” said Reid. “The burden of what has taken place is on the middle class and the poor.”

Even the four openly gay members of the House were split on the agreement this week. Veteran Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., voted no, and newcomer Reps. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and David Cicilline, D-R.I., voted yes.

Baldwin issued a statement saying the bill amounts to playing “political games” that “threaten to set back our fragile economic recovery.” While the bill needs to lower the deficit, said Baldwin, it also needs to create jobs and protect the middle class “through shared sacrifice.”

Frank said he opposed the bill primarily because it did not include cuts in war spending. As for harm to funding for LGBT-related concerns, Frank said funding to enforce hate crimes and bullying programs is relatively small and unlikely to be affected, but he said cuts would hurt funding for bigger expenditures, such as research to fight breast cancer.

Cicilline issued a statement following his vote for the agreement, saying he did so “to prevent a first-ever default on our nation’s obligations, and to avoid the very real potential of an economic catastrophe.”
“To be clear,” added Cicilline, “there’s a lot about this bill I don’t like, but my prerequisite for voting in favor of this bill was that we avoid a default and we protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, which this bill does.

“There’s no question that the single biggest job killer for our country would have been a default,” said Cicilline. “In the coming months Congress must build off of this compromise legislation to pursue a balanced approach to reduce our nation’s debt and redouble our focus on putting people back to work.”

AIDS United, a coalition of hundreds of local groups working to help people with HIV and AIDS, says the agreement is not a balanced approach and does “little to remove the cloud of potential, devastating funding cuts to non-defense domestic programs, including HIV-related programs, funding to implement health care reform, and low-income safety net programs.”

AIDS United said it fears programs for people with HIV “could be affected adversely by the harsh spending caps in FY 2012 and following years.”

And groups serving LGBT youth are worried, too.

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLESN), said she thinks it’s too early to know the specific impact.

But “there is no doubt,” she said, “that the hard spending caps created by the agreement will have a serious impact on K-12 education and youth services, effecting all LGBT youth in this country.

“Advocates for youth, LGBT and otherwise, will need to be extremely vigilant about the emerging details of the initial cuts and the further reductions to spending to be recommended by the Congressional panel,” said Byard. “As a member of the National Collaboration for Youth, the America’s Promise Alliance, and the Whole Child Initiative of ASCD, GLSEN will continue to advocate for LGBT youth in the context of protecting the interests of all children in on-going budget debates.”

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the national gay Republican group Log Cabin Republicans, credited Republican leaders with setting “a clear goal” and refusing to give President Obama “a blank check” for spending.

But he added, “Nobody should believe that this is more than a stopgap measure.”

“The culture of spending in Washington must fundamentally change going forward,” said Cooper. “This is only the first step in a course that will dramatically alter how our government approaches the budget and will provide fiscal stability for Wall Street and Main Street.”

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force warned last year that deficit reduction measures would almost certainly mean “key safety-net programs [would] be caught in the political crossfire….”

The Human Rights Campaign had no comment on the debt ceiling bill by deadline.

© 2011 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 5, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens