Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has used his state’s budget deficit as an excuse to attack collective-bargaining rights. He argues that Wisconsin simply can’t afford collective bargaining. Nevertheless, as has widely been reported, his claimed $137 million deficit could be addressed without touching these rights. Indeed, it’s simply false to argue that eliminating collective bargaining has really anything to do with the budget deficit, especially since unions have already offered pay concessions.
But what is most surprising about Walker’s attack on collective bargaining is its speed. Walker was sworn in on January 3. He announced his proposal to strip collective-bargaining rights for public employees barely a month later, on February 11. (Despite his statements to the contrary, Walker did not campaign on this in his election.) A mere five days after the proposal was unveiled, the Wisconsin Senate Finance Committee held a markup and public hearing of the bill, and voted to pass it, on a party-line vote, in the dead of night. The bill also passed the Assembly with only Republican votes. Only because Democrats have fled to deny it a quorum has the bill been stopped in the Senate.
It’s clear that Governor Walker and Wisconsin Republicans tried to jam through this bill because they were worried that, with scrutiny, their efforts to paint this as a budget decision, rather than an effort to undermine their political opponents, would be criticized (which they now have). Granted, we’re used to politicians coming into power and rewarding their friends, but a brazen effort to use the power of the state to weaken one’s enemies should even make cynics squeamish. Yet conspicuously quiet as mice about Walker’s actions are Republicans on the Hill—never mind that, in the past, they have pummeled Obama and the Democrats on the grounds that they, too, rushed legislation through Congress.
Remember when national Republicans claimed that the health care reform bill, which had been deliberated for a full year before it passed, was being “rammed through”? Senate Republicans, even some of the moderates, argued that the bill needed more time for consideration. They claimed Democrats were moving too fast, not listening to the American people, and misreading their mandate, even though President Obama campaigned on health care for two years. But now that Walker, one of their own, is actually doing the exact things they once criticized, Republicans in Washington don’t seem to care. Even the local Chamber of Commerce in Wisconsin, typically a more conservative body, has been repelled by Walker’s speedy tactics, saying, “Given this state’s long history of collective bargaining, policy changes of this magnitude should be thoroughly debated for an adequate period of time, in good faith by both sides, with all potential consequences considered. Currently, that is not happening.” But the national GOP, again, is silent.
Perhaps this is because national Republicans are using Walker-like tactics in Washington. With the deficit as an excuse, they have used the threat of a government shutdown as a cudgel to try to force the president to accept their deep cuts in programs that help our economy grow and help the neediest amongst us. Indeed, House Republicans have tried to attach $100 billion in cuts to a continuing resolution that would allow the government to continue functioning for the last seven months of this fiscal year. Those cuts would devastate children, taking $1 billion from Head Start and more than $1.7 billion from children’s health and nutrition programs. It also would include cuts to poison control centers and food safety, including eliminating many food inspectors. But not only do these cuts hurt people, they also hurt economic growth. A new report from Goldman Sachs found that the GOP’s cuts could slash growth for the rest of 2011 in half, and Mark Zandi, McCain’s economist during the 2008 campaign, found that it would cost the country 700,000 jobs.
The normal process of spending decisions, of course, is to allow the budget and appropriations committees to work. But, by way of the continuing resolution, Republicans tried to short-circuit the process—and have threatened a government shutdown if they don’t get their way. For the moment, they are trying to appear somewhat reasonable, agreeing to an extension of the current spending resolution, which will allow the government to continue functioning for two weeks, that includes only $4 billion in cuts. But this is just going to let Republicans to come back in mid-March and again demand deep, untenable cuts.
The fact is that, if Republicans actually cared about supposedly out-of-control spending, they would not have voted for a massive tax-cut deal that increased the deficit by $800 billion a mere three months ago. Nor would they leave the Pentagon budget virtually untouched, or refuse to consider raising a single tax, even amongst the wealthiest, in the budget proposals they have put forward. Similarly, if he was truly concerned about his state’s spending, Governor Walker wouldn’t have signed a tax cut for businesses in late January, which only contributed to Wisconsin’s deficit.
Indeed, in both Wisconsin and Washington, Republicans are disingenuously using budget and deficit arguments to advance their political goals. Worse, they’re doing it at lightning speed, so as to leave critics in their dust. It’s all a charade, but the end-game is as old as politics itself: Help your friends, and hurt your enemies, and do it as quickly as you can.
Neera Tanden is the chief operating officer of the Center for American Progress. She served in the Obama and Clinton administrations.