Utah representative Ben McAdams, a Democrat, warned ominously this week that a “day of reckoning is coming”. It’s the kind of sober language typically used to describe a climate crisis which – if we continue on with business as usual – could end human civilization as we know it. McAdams, though, was describing a decidedly less grave threat, if it can be considered a threat at all: the federal deficit.
He and 26 other members of the so-called Blue Dog Coalition – centrist and fiscally-conservative Democrats – are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the federal government from running a deficit if there isn’t a war or recession happening. Social security and Medicare would be spared from the brutal spending cuts the amendment would bring about … but that’s it.
At a time when scientists are calling for governments to adopt a “wartime footing” to address the existential threat of climate change, the proposal isn’t just a stupid play into Republican hands. It’s climate denial.
McAdams’ proposal emerged after a lengthy fight between those so-called moderate Democrats and the 90 member Congressional Progressive Caucus over a proposed budget measure, which House Democratic leadership moved to cancel a vote on Tuesday afternoon amidst rising tensions. Progressive wanted more domestic spending and less for our already bloated military. Moderates – radically – want to curb spending overall.
And for what? There’s nothing inherently dangerous about a growing deficit; vigilante bondholders are not going to come knocking on America’s door threatening our sovereignty. And a country that issues debt in its own currency like the US is never going to face the kind of sadistic punishment the Troika visited upon Greece several years back. Deficits do matter, of course. But what’s important isn’t their dollar value. It’s whether the things that public money is pouring into are actually putting the economy on a stronger footing.
Republicans know this all too well. Famed small government deficit hawk Ronald Reagan ran up the third largest debt of any US president, after Franklin D Roosevelt and Barack Obama. And today’s Republican party didn’t bat an eye before passing $2tn worth of tax cuts that mainly benefit the wealthy.
Centrist Democrats, meanwhile, paint themselves as the fiscally responsible wing of their party out to curb waste on both sides of the aisle. Yet what’s so responsible about kneecapping the government’s ability to avert $32bn worth of infrastructure damage, $118bn from sea level rise and $141bn in costs due to heat related illness, according to the National Climate Assessment?
If there were some foreign invader threatening to inflict this much damage on the US, neither conservative Democrats nor Republicans would bat an eye before throwing as many resources as possible toward fighting them off. Because the threat is posed by climate change – and these politicians’ fossil fuel executive donors – their response has ranged instead from indifference to outright denial. They may not all quibble with the scientific consensus on global warming, but they’re doing everything they can to sabotage reasonable responses to it.
Most recently, they’ve taken to pushing back on calls for a Green New Deal – the only proposal on the table that remotely matches the ambition science demands. While Republicans fabricated a $93tn price tag for the Green New Deal, it’s impossible to predict how much any suite of programs will cost until you have something concrete to look at and cost out.
What is clear, however, is that any earnest response to the climate crisis will require significant federal investment to do things like electrify large swaths of the economy, scale up renewable energy and invest in communities likely to be hardest hit by a transition away from fossil fuels. Done right, these investments could radically improve Americans’ quality of life and salvage our chance for a livable future. A balanced budget amendment would take away the best tools we have to make one possible.
As Republicans pick and choose when to fearmonger about the deficit, Democrats like McAdams continue to describe its growth in apocalyptic terms – all the while ignoring the actual apocalypse the climate crisis could bring about. “It is clear we are on a dangerous and unsustainable course,” he wrote in the Deseret News. “The decisions won’t be easy, but our children and our grandchildren are counting on us to make this right.”
If McAdams and other centrist Democrats were actually worried about their children and grandchildren, they’d throw out their amendment and back the Green New Deal that so many young people have rallied behind. For now, they’re more interested in screwing them over.