Everyone's now well aware that Congress has passed a flurry of mostly-great legislation this week. There's the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the biggest update to food safety laws since 1938, a major child nutrition bill, the START treaty, and more.
Before you party too hard...
I want to ask everyone to keep it all in perspective.
So - as someone who has been directly involved in lobbying and activism on some of the bills that just passed - I'm gonna play Debbie Downer right now and share some things that you might not know.
Here's a list of what just passed, to the best of my knowledge:
1. Repeal of DADT
2. START treaty
3. Tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, i.e. "compromise"
4. The Shark Conservation Act (no more finning in US waters!)
5. The food safety bill
6. The Child Nutrition reauthorization (i.e. school lunch)
7. Aid to 9/11 first responders
8. Extending the federal budget til March
9. Local Community Radio act
Did I get it all there?
OK, well first... what do you notice about this list of bills (perhaps leaving the Obama tax "compromise" beside)? None of them have any real enemies. There isn't a "We Hate 9/11 First Responders" lobby, with the exception of perhaps Bin Ladin himself (and if Congress is being influenced by him we have bigger problems on our hands). Nor is there a pro-E. coli lobby. And now even the top military brass is for the repeal of DADT.
This is something I noticed several months ago. You see, the food safety bill has been in the works and "about ready to pass" for over a year now. Ditto on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization. And the thing about the food safety bill is that it addresses many problems that have been around since AT LEAST the early 1990's... but all of a sudden, Big Food is on board with passing the bill. And once all of the big food companies got on board, Congress spurred into action.
Now, part of that change happened because the last few years brought recalls SO dramatic that even Congress had to get moving... and the food companies saw the writing on the wall. But the other thing, I would argue, is that the food safety problems finally cut into the companies' bottom lines more than any regulation will.
When the peanut recall happened, the entire peanut market tanked by 25%. Companies that were totally innocent lost money. Grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and nursing homes were affected. In some cases, the recall was so large and confusing that consumers shunned safe products "just in case." In other cases, a company was using the tainted peanut butter in its products and so, even though it wasn't their own bad behavior that led to the problem, they were harmed all the same.
At that point, major food companies went to Congress and actually said "Please regulate us!" (No joke - I watched the hearings.) When actually asked about it by Congress, they made it clear that they didn't want to be regulated too much. I mean... come on. Go ahead and inspect us, but, like, could you tell us when you're coming at least a day in advance?
Another few points to note about the food safety bill, unless something has changed recently and I haven't noticed:
1. It does not entirely fund the FDA to do the job the bill requires it to do, so at some point in the near future, the FDA will need a LOT of new money added to its budget.
2. It doesn't affect meat and poultry regulations AT ALL. Those all stay the same for now.
3. It does not restructure food safety regulatory agencies at all. Our food safety system is convoluted and messed up because it's split between so many departments and agencies, and many (including people I trust and respect) call for one single food safety agency. The bill did not do that.
These shortcomings are NOT accidents. The USDA regulates all meat and poultry, and the food safety bill went through the committee that oversees only the FDA. The ag committee, which oversees the USDA, is not for any stricter regulation. Nor are they for any move that would take food safety responsibilities away from the USDA and put them into a single food safety agency that might actually regulate food safety.
As for school lunch, the bill that just went through did a lot. For the first time, for example, the government funded farm to school. Yay. And, I believe, the bill finally (after DECADES) gave the USDA the authority to regulate the nutrition of ALL food sold in schools during the school day. But guess what... the part of the bill dealing with that was a product of a compromise between nutrition advocates and the food industry. So it's not exactly a home-run for people who want to get junk and chocolate milk out of schools.
For me - and I've been extremely active in analyzing, speaking about, writing about, and lobbying on this bill - the bill gave me nearly everything I wanted. Except money. And unfortunately, everything else is not worth much without money.
You can call for schools to make better food, and you can put stronger nutrition standards on them. But if you don't give them MONEY - for food, supplies, equipment, labor, and training - you won't get better food or better nutrition. Right now, with the current (relatively lax) nutrition standards, over 90% of schools do not meet the nutrition standards. So why would that number go up if we make the rules stricter without giving the schools more cash?
Now to be fair, the schools got some extra money. All of $.06 per lunch. Woohoo. They need something more like $1.00 and anything less than $.35 means that they aren't even breaking even.
I sum up this bill by saying "We care enough to prevent hunger, but not enough to prevent diabetes." And I do want to give credit where it is due - the bill does a LOT to help schools feed more hungry kids. It does this by allowing schools in high poverty areas to shift money from administrative paperwork into feeding more hungry kids. Hallelujah. But the sad truth is that they will probably be feeding the kids the same junk that they feed kids now.
I would advocate for a massive increase in funding to the school lunch program, including hiring a bunch of new lunch ladies (or men) to cook the kids real food. This would "create jobs" and it would save the country money in the long run, money that we are going to spend on diabetes, heart disease, and cancer care if we keep going the way we are going. Doing that would appear to be expensive because it would involve spending money now - maybe $100 billion over 10 years, maybe more - but it would absolutely save our nation money long term, AND it would improve the quality of life for the next generation.
As it was, we had 2 bills - a House and a Senate bill - for school lunch, and the House bill gave child nutrition programs an extra $8 billion over 10 years, the Senate bill gave an extra $4.5 billion. And that $8 billion was just too much to spend on our kids. No, we had to go cheap on them by passing the Senate bill instead... but then nobody blinked an eye when deciding to spend hundreds of billions on tax cuts for the rich.
As for the tax cut deal... honestly? The Republicans must have been like "Oh, don't throw me in that briar patch, Mr. President!" Our compromise with Republicans was that we let them pass huge tax cuts for the very rich, and in return they let us pass MORE TAX CUTS. The so-called "Obama tax cuts" from the stimulus were originally put in the stimulus as a compromise to the Republicans, who wanted less spending and more tax cuts.
We know for a fact - from non-partisan sources - that tax cuts are not as stimulative as other things, like food stamps and unemployment. And we got some unemployment into that compromise. Some. But really, other than the unemployment in the so-called compromise, we did not do anything that we KNOW will create jobs. Things like aid to states so they can keep from firing public servants and teachers. Or building infrastructure. Rather than putting money out into the economy and hoping that rich people will "create jobs," the government could just HIRE PEOPLE and create jobs with 100% certainty with every penny spent.
I hate to be a downer. I want to celebrate this moment. And I find it sad, that it took 2 years of obstruction and wrangling and threatening to make the Senate work Christmas to get the Republicans to pass stuff they believed in anyway. But that's where we are and we should keep it in perspective. We had victories in getting stuff passed, but it was stuff that was bipartisan to begin with. These weren't liberal victories in any sense other than one.
The Republicans have every incentive to tank the economy even worse and block everything from passing (even stuff that is their own idea) in order to make Obama look bad. And it's worked pretty well. So this stuff passing... it goes against that. It's a victory against that. Stuff got done on Obama's watch. Hugely important, often long overdue, fairly uncontroversial (save the tax "compromise") bipartisan stuff.
But it's no New New Deal. It's not all that liberal or progressive. We're still operating far too much under Milton Friedman economics and not nearly enough under John Maynard Keynes. And at the same time, Obama's working on an executive order saying he can detain people indefinitely, and god knows what is happening to Bradley Manning. The Cancun climate summit just passed a week or so ago, with a tragic deal that basically amounts to the death of the planet, and the U.S. had a big hand (although it's not the only country to blame) in making sure that the UN didn't come up with a stronger agreement. And all this will get worse, not better, under the Republican House in the next Congress.
So celebrate the victory, but don't get so drunk on the champagne that you forget the reality of the situation. Take a few days to celebrate and then get back to the fight.