In an article from the Washington Post on “Tea Party” Congressman Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, these paragraphs caught my attention:
Mulvaney mostly meets with voters through weekly town hall meetings. Sometimes he brings with him a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation, full of bar graphs and fever charts depicting the growing federal deficit and the surging cost of health care. In January, Mulvaney added a chart on the automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, which next year will total about $100 billion.
To him the numbers make sense. “In the greater scheme of things, they are not that big,” Mulvaney said.
But, every once in a while, a personal anecdote punctures his certainty. Earlier this month, a friend and former campaign volunteer stood up at one of the town hall meetings to tell Mulvaney that the defense cuts had cost him his job of five years with a large defense contractor. “I just want you to know that these cuts are real and they hurt me,” said Jeffrey Betsch, a single father of three daughters, who was on the verge of being evicted from his home.
After the Rotary Club speech, Mulvaney was thinking about his friend as he drove down a narrow two-lane ribbon of worn blacktop, past strawberry farms and pine forests. He felt terrible, he said, but he also believed that the country faced problems that were bigger than the struggles of a single constituent.
“I don’t see how you wipe out 40 cents of spending on every dollar and not have someone get hurt,” Mulvaney said.
The punchline of the article, which is titled “As budget cuts hit S.C., a congressman is surprised at constituents’ reactions” is that his constituents are actually not angry with him, despite his stubborn refusal to shower the district with federal dollars, as his predecessor Rep. John Spratt did. It was anger toward Spratt and his loose spending ways that propelled Mulvaney into office in 2010. That same anger may be the wind at his back if he runs for higher office in his state.
Yet principled though they may be, Mulvaney’s actions have had real consequences for his constituents. In addition to his former campaign volunteer, the Congressman faced the irritation of an Air Force general in his district who claimed the effects of the sequester had made the AF less ready for warfare than at any time in memory. To which charges, Mulvaney responded, “If the cuts force us to look for better ways of saving money in the future, they will be a success. We can’t go backwards.”
How can a progressive argue with such principle? The chief pain caused in Mulvaney’s district is to the military and “independent” defense contractors–or should we say, to the people who work for either sector. Do progressives want to see that money continue to flow to those pockets, or can we use this opportunity of Tea Party intransigence to rethink our spending priorities?
On the other hand, if you didn’t see this re-blog of a post by Michael Johnson of a couple of days ago, take a look now. According to Johnson, who is an economic analyst, by 62 months after the Reagan recession of 1981-3, during which there was a divided government between a Republican White House and Senate and a Democratic House, total government spending rose 51% and the government added 700,000 federal jobs. During that same length of time after the Obama recession of 2008-9, government spending had risen only 22% and government employment was down 500,000 jobs. No matter what you may think of Reagan, it’s difficult to argue that the 2010s have been anywhere near the kind of boom the 1980s were.
It may be that Reagan had the Democratic House to thank for the stimulating, Keynesian budgets he eventually signed. It may be that it’s really the fault of the Republicans in the House that the Obama years have been marked by a slavish neoliberalism and fiscal conservatism. Honestly, you can make either case and it would be difficult to refute. And the upshot of either argument would be that the House, even when it seems constipated into inaction, might actually be the key to how well the economy fares, no matter who is president.
In any case, this data would seem to give the lie to the neoliberal position that the government has no positive role to play in the economy, unless you want to argue that a stimulated economy of a democracy where a utilitarian critical mass of the population benefits is not actually an absolute good. But this might also give the lie to the anti-corruption position that the money that influences the way representatives in Congress vote necessarily injures the democracy. If the military-industrial complex cannot influence representatives to keep the money flowing to their districts and those districts suffer economically as a result, as in Mulvaney’s case, is the democracy working?
Anyone who reads this blog regularly will not be surprised to know I don’t think the democracy is, in fact, working. Unlike Mulvaney, I don’t believe it’s necessarily because the government is now spending more than it takes in. I do believe it’s because the government has for a long time been working harder to enrich and empower those who already have plenty of riches and power, and I believe that when Congress is full of Mulvaneys who shrink the number of people who benefit from government hiring and spending for too long, it will hurt the general welfare and accelerate the widening political and economic gaps between the top 1% and the bottom 99%. But I do think it’s worth questioning one’s beliefs about democracy regularly.
I rather do admire Mulvaney for sticking to his principles despite having the suffering his party’s obstinacy is causing made real for him right into his face. I think he’s right that one constituent’s woes can’t cancel out the good his policies might be doing. The question for Mulvaney, though, is, how can he be so sure his party’s policies are really doing good. How would he have voted during the Reagan years? Does he now believe the Reagan boon was not all he and his fellow Tea Party members once apparently believed it was? Is there something different about this era compared to the Reagan era that makes Reagan’s spend and spend policy impracticable for Obama–and for all of us?
- Mulvaney: Expect sequestration to last through current fiscal year (thestate.com)
- The Morning Plum: Who do the austerians in Congress speak for, anyway? (washingtonpost.com)
- Mulvaney talks immigration, jobs in Fort Mill (charlotteobserver.com)
- Mulvaney, Duncan hold joint town hall in Newberry (thestate.com)