The Congressional Black Caucus drew its line in the sand in the first week of December regarding any plan to avert the end-of-year “fiscal cliff” that threatens to tilt the U.S. economy into an abyss.

The Capitol Hill lawmakers on Dec. 3 issued a set of principles that will guide their decision on any deal arising out of the ongoing negotiations between the White House and Republican leaders.

“Strengthening our economy and getting our nation back on track will require tough choices, but one thing is clear—the path to fiscal sustainability must not be made on the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable communities,” the memo read.

And the CBC wants to ensure that the interests of those communities are heard, CBC Chairman Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) added in a later interview.

“We believe that people of color as well as people in the urban cores of our country—Black, White, Hispanic—should have some representation during these highly impactful negotiations about reducing the deficit,” he said.

The fiscal cliff refers to a combination of the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts and subsequent tax breaks and automatic slashes in federal agency budgets, as mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, compromise legislation that grew out of failed attempts at a budget deal.

The initial White House proposal includes about $1.6 trillion in tax hikes, including $1 trillion from the expiration of the George W. Bush-era high-income and estate tax cuts, and additional revenue from limiting tax expenditures for high-income households.

It also offers up $600 billion in spending cuts, including $350 billion from Medicare and Medicaid, even as it requests $200 billion in new spending for jobless benefits, public works projects and aid for struggling homeowners.

Congressional Republicans have characterized the plan as “nonsense,” but their 10-year, $2.2 trillion counter-offering restates ideas from the impasse over the federal budget negotiations with President Obama in the summer of 2011.

It includes $800 billion in tax revenues from a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code that involves nixing unspecified tax breaks while lowering taxes overall; $600 billion in cuts to health programs, including an increase in the eligibility age for Medicare and increased Medicare costs for higher-income beneficiaries; and $200 billion in savings from replacing the current inflation adjustment for Social Security and income tax brackets.

While there are many points of disagreement, the largest stumbling block seems to be the tax hike on the wealthiest Americans: President Obama refuses to sign a bill that does not include an increase and Republican leaders are equally stubborn about not supporting one that does.

But public opinion supports the Obama—and CBC—position on tax fairness, Black lawmakers said.

“It was fairly vetted when the president got 3 million more votes than his challenger ” said Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) “They keep acting like we haven’t had an election, but we have.”

Public polling also shows that Americans are averse to cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Cleaver said, and the CBC will oppose any plan that changes the eligibility for Medicare, cuts benefits to Medicaid beneficiaries or diminishes Social Security, since it does not contribute to the deficit.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said the need for these social programs is higher now than ever and their budgets are already stretched.

“The Republicans claim that the president is not doing enough on so-called ‘entitlements.’ But there is only so much you can squeeze from these programs. I really believe it is the intent of the Republicans to do away with Medicare and Medicaid as we know it,” the congressman said.

“The sad thing is many of the people I represent desperately need these programs,” he added. “For a lot of people, all they have is Social Security and Medicare—that’s it. They don’t have savings, pensions, 401 (k)s or, if they have 401 (k)s they’ve been diminished because of the economic downturn, and they don’t have equity in their homes or have lost their home to foreclosure.”

CBC members are also concerned about anything that inhibits job creation. If an agreement is not reached by Dec. 31, people receiving unemployment benefits will lose them; automatic cuts to the budgets of government agencies could mean a lot of people losing their jobs; and if taxes increase, people may spend less on goods and services and decreased demand could lead merchants to cut jobs.

The Affordable Care Act must also be fully implemented and protected in budget talks, the CBC memo stated. While Republicans argue that “Obamacare” adds to the deficit with its insurance subsidies to lower-income Americans, Black lawmakers say healthier Americans mean lower health care costs.

“It (ACA), for example, provides for all wellness and preventive care exams and allows our seniors to stay well longer,” Cummings argued. “It will save money in the end because a huge percentage of spending in Medicare is spent on end-of-life care.”

The CBC’s Statement of Principles can be viewed here:


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO