Included in the House rules package for the 116th Congress is a funding provision that exemplifies the way ‘national security’ circles back to compromise working-class security.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi included in the House rules a pay-as-you-go provision — commonly referred to as ‘PAYGO’ — which stipulates that any funding increase in a mandatory spending program must be offset by a reduction in another program. Mandatory spending is exactly what it sounds like: Congress is obligated to fund mandatory accounts such as Medicare and Social Security. Discretionary spending, on the other hand, is formulated by the Congress during its yearly authorizations and appropriations process.
U.S. Wars and War Taxes, 1793-2010
The federal deficit is purportedly the reason Speaker Pelosi pushed PAYGO in the first place: a pragmatic solution to an increasingly unbalanced national ledger; an ode to ‘fiscal responsibility’.
But as true for many technocratic policies, the PAYGO provision chooses to ignore the politics that constructed the ‘reality’ to which it responds.
Relevant to this case are two examples. First, the two largest contributors of the forecasted increase to the 2019 deficit were the Republican tax bill and the bipartisan agreement on federal spending, of which over half went to the military. Second, only military spending is exempt from budgetary constraints imposed by the deficit. No war since Vietnam has been offset by a corresponding tax increase. Instead, they have all been fought on credit.
Viewed in this light, the deficit is a rhetorical device used by Democrats and Republicans alike to slash social spending, but structurally ignores one of the central drivers that gave us the deficit in the first place. The extent to which the PAYGO provision is pragmatic is contingent on the extent that one radically shrinks their consciousness of history.
Republicans have provided Democrats with plenty of deficit material by virtue of the Bush-era tax cuts, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now the Trump tax cuts. In the past, Democrats have reflexively given a pass to ‘national security’ programs while at the same time dismantling programs that support genuine human security. By challenging Speaker Pelosi and rejecting the PAYGO provision, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Tulsi Gabbard, and Ro Khanna have begun to subvert this damaging norm. This is the first step in aligning budget priorities to working-class needs.