Bread, Bombs and a 9-Day Clock

The president's call for a congressional vote on Syria couldn't come at a worst time for economic justice.

By Imara Jones Sep 04, 2013

The congressional vote President Obama has requested on military action in Syria is both serious and grave. But it couldn’t be coming at a worse time for the economic justice agenda of youth, people of color and the working poor.

The problem is that Congress has just nine legislative days to accomplish an economic agenda that would normally be difficult to implement over the course of a year. The peculiarities of the September congressional calendar have constrained the amount of time that the legislative branch has to act on urgent economic agenda items which, if mishandled, could set off an economic crisis yet again.

That’s why, given the ongoing financial distress in hard hit communities, a debate and vote on Syria at this time is a potential worry. There may simply not be enough time for it.

And added to the weight of the moment–just one week after commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom–is the fact that we may be on the cusp of initiating military action that like Vietnam will distract the nation’s leadership at a critical time and undermine the economic well being of America’s most vulnerable. The War in Vietnam wrecked the economic agenda of the 1963 march and drained resources from the War Against Poverty. Action in Syria may offer an eerie parallel. 

Our Economic Precipice

On Oct. 1, the United States government will shut down unless swift action is taken. That”s when both the fiscal year–the 12-month period of budgeting–and the current temporary funding measure called a "continuing resolution" will expire. The House GOP is calling for the president to concede to massive budget reductions in order to keep the government going.

At the heart of the confrontation over the budget is sequestration, the disastrous budget cutting deal that kicked in earlier this year. Congressional Republicans are demanding that the 2012 budget cuts be effectively doubled in either the new budget or a new continuing resolution, slashing another $100 billion this year on top of last year’s $85 billion. President Obama wants sequestration to be diminished and reconfigured in order to lessen the impact on vulnerable communities. Unless the White House and Congress can come to terms on this dispute, the federal government will run out of money in a matter of weeks.

If that weren’t enough, Congress also needs to raise the total debt that the United States can carry on its books by mid-October. The government is projected to need $600 billion more than it will generate in revenues. And if it doesn’t raise the so called "debt ceiling" by that amount, then 20 percent of the government will have to close up shop by mid-October. That’s because the government borrows one out of five of every dollar that it spends.

Underscoring the clash that’s set to take place on these issues, House Speaker John Boehner recently told a Republican gathering in Idaho that he would use the debt ceiling debate to cut the budget for Social Security and Medicare. "I’ve made it clear [to the president] that we’re not going to increase the debt limit without cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase in the debt limit," Boehner said. In direct opposition to the speaker’s position, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told CNBC, "The president’s been very clear we are not to be negotiating on the debt limit."

What’s more is that congressional Republicans have vowed to tie these budget and debt issues together, and use them to force the president to kill Obamacare. The issue is that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act faces a key turning point in the next 30 days as well, and the House GOP wants to use the timing to their political benefit.

On Oct. 1, Americans will finally be able to shop for insurance plans at reduced rates on healthcare exchanges. At the end of the year these plans, along with an expansion in Medicaid–the crucial part of Obamacare for people of color–will kick in. Congressional Republicans are demanding that the president agree to gut the exchanges and eliminate the Medicaid increase in order to secure either a budget for the fiscal year or a debt limit increase. In justifying the fusion of the fiscal, financial and healthcare issues into a mega-problem for the political system, Boehner said, "Our goal is to stop Obamacare."

Despite this exhaustive list, there’s another area that needs urgent attention: immigration reform.

If it’s to avoid getting caught up in election year politics, comprehensive immigration reform needs to be signed into law by the end of 2013. To meet this deadline, legislative action on immigration in the House of Representatives needs to begin in the scarce legislative days of September.

Who’s Leading?

The bottom line is that the United States has looming, critical deadlines in the next four weeks on the budget, debt, healthcare and immigration. The challenge is that a miscalculation in any of these areas could spell disaster for millions and set back economic fairness for years. Getting them right is paramount, especially in light of the fact that the hardest hit communities have not recovered from the 2008 financial collapse and ensuing recession, the worst in almost a hundred a years.

All of this underscores the curiousness of the president asking Congress to take up Syria in the limited time it has available. Even more curiously, even as the president asked for congressional authorization to strike, he acknoweldged that he does not actually need it. Indeed, under the War Powers Resolution of 1973–passed in the wake of the Vietnam War–the president has the power to commit the Armed Forces to military action for up to 60 days without congressional say so.

Moreover, the president also said that his action against Syria is "not time sensitive" and would have the same impact "next week or, one month from now." Therefore, by his own admission, the Syria vote need not take place immediately.

So the essential question of why President Obama is tying up precious days on the congressional calendar to press for a vote whose outcome he doesn’t feel bound by–for a strike that is not urgent–is an open one. All the while, the economic agenda on which both he and the Congress need to act immediately is flashing red.

Let’s hope that they find a way to accomplish what’s economically right for historically marginalized communities before the clock runs out.