For months now, liberals in the blogosphere and the press have been complaining about the hypocrisy of a deficit-obsessed Washington establishment that blanches at the thought of taking on an additional dollar of debt in order to create jobs or expand access to health care, but thinks nothing of slapping a couple of wars on the old national tab. To conservative Republicans and “centrist” Blue Dogs alike, the deficit is a reason we can’t afford to do anything until suddenly it’s time to pay for bombs and guns—and then it doesn’t matter. Even the fairly liberal Obama administration goes along with this contention, absolutely insisting that health reform and climate-change legislation must reduce the deficit but putting no such constraint on military operations.
What’s badly needed is some kind of leadership priority to which they can say “no” from the left. Debt-financed escalation of the war in Afghanistan fits the bill.
Now someone is doing something about it.
Representative David Obey (D-WI), chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, has been making noise about this mismatch since October. On Monday, he got more specific with his complaints, proposing a special “war surtax” to finance any possible escalation of troop levels in Afghanistan. Now the idea’s attracted some powerful partners, specifically two other major liberal committee chairs, Charlie Rangel (D-NY) of the Ways and Means Committee and Barney Frank (D-MA) of the Financial Services Committee, along with John Larson (D-CT), who chairs the House Democratic caucus. Also on board is John Murtha (D-PA), who’s not really a liberal but endeared himself to the left with early opposition to the Iraq War—and who now needs to keep those ties strong as he comes under increasing ethical clouds.
Their bill is called the Share the Sacrifice Act, and the details are somewhere between inspired and too cute. The main provision is a 1 percent tax on households earning between $30,000 and $150,000 with progressively higher rates on families earning above $150,000. Exactly how high those rates would go would depend on how much the war costs. Meanwhile, those who’ve served in Iraq or Afghanistan and the immediate families of those who lost their lives in the fighting would be exempt.
Members of Congress rarely leap at the opportunity to vote for a tax increase, so the odds of this bill passing don’t seem great. It does, however, provide an extremely convenient point around which for progressive members to organize by signing on to the bill—and then saying they can’t vote for further war appropriations until they’re held to the same standard of deficit neutrality as other budget elements. Ordinarily, casting a vote against a defense-funding request is a politically hairy move against “funding the troops.” But the Share the Sacrifice Act allows such an action to be reframed as a plea for budgetary responsibility and an end to the dynamic in which America is a peacetime country whose military happens to be fighting wars.
It would also serve some broader objectives. As liberals are discovering, trying to be the good guys has left them with a frustrating lack of leverage on key policy issues. When Senators Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) or Joe Lieberman (I-CT) threaten to sink health reform unless the public option is killed, they’re credible. Moderate Democrats, by all indications, really would condemn millions of Americans to going uninsured and face the possibility of bankruptcy or even death if they can’t get their way on this point. Liberals, by contrast, can say they’d spike a reform bill that doesn’t conform to what they want on the public option, but realistically no progressive member of Congress is going to be that sociopathic.
As warranted as that kind of behavior may be, over the long term it's a recipe for a powerless progressive bloc in Congress. What's badly needed is an issue on which the left can afford to draw a line in the sand. Many Democrats won't want to touch this with a 10-foot pole, but for more progressive members from safe districts, debt-financed escalation of the war in Afghanistan fits the bill.
More important, it would also be good military strategy. By far the biggest problem with General McChrystal’s strategic review undertaken earlier this year was a failure to put Afghanistan in any kind of broader context of priorities, costs, or benefits. That’s not McChrystal’s fault; he wasn’t given a mandate to do that, or to subject his own requests to any kind of resource constraints. But this is no way for a hegemonic superpower faced with a slow-but-likely-inevitable relative decline vis-à-vis China and India to behave. We have real interests in Afghanistan, but they’re limited; we also have other interests elsewhere around the world and problems at home. A program to bring security, fight corruption, and provide economic opportunity to the people of Afghanistan sounds like a good idea. But it would also be a good idea to do those things for the people of Detroit or Baltimore.
The mere existence of domestic needs doesn’t, of course, mean we should neglect the foreign realm. But at home Congress is routinely asked to pay for its priorities, and wringing the funds out of the hands of recalcitrant taxpayers is a difficult task. It should be no different abroad. Obey’s fundamental point, after all, is merely that defense expenditures cost real money. It’s a simple point, and a correct one, but one that too many on the right and center of American politics seem to have forgotten.
Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.