"We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation."
-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rarely have the divisions in American politics been more clear - or more onerous. In less than a month, on Aug. 2, if Congress refuses to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, the United States economy could be thrown into a fiscal tailspin that would eviscerate America's credit rating, lead to sky-high interest rates, rip a giant hole in the social safety net, jeopardize the well-being and savings of millions of working and middle class citizens and result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Majority leaders in the House and minority leaders in the Senate have taken the unprecedented step of linking a raise in the debt ceiling to the debate about deficit reduction and spending cuts. In effect, they are attempting to extort big cuts in programs benefiting working and middle class citizens while protecting exorbitant tax breaks for oil companies, corporate jet owners, and hedge fund managers. They say this is the only way they will agree to increase the debt limit. Fiscal experts such as Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warn that if such extortions happen, severe disruptions will occur. Beginning Aug. 2, social security checks may be halted. Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment benefits may stop. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan may not get paid. And hundreds of thousands of government workers may be laid off. This is no way to run the most trustworthy and powerful government in the world. And, it is no way to honor the hard work and sacrifices of its people.
It should be noted, that prior to this current showdown, the debt ceiling has routinely been raised almost 100 times since its establishment in 1917. Former President George W. Bush raised it seven times without objection while racking up trillions of dollars of new debt for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and big tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
The Obama administration is not oblivious to the need for spending cuts. For months, Vice President Joe Biden has led bipartisan negotiations aimed at agreeing on a sensible deficit reduction plan. Progress has been made. But recently several members of the so-called "Gang of Six" walked out of the negotiations because of ideological resistance to balancing spending cuts for the middle class with ending some tax breaks for the wealthy.
As they defend the rights of working-class Americans, I would urge them also to consider the recommendations included in the National Urban League's 12-Point Jobs Plan, "Putting Urban American Back To Work." The creation of Urban Jobs Academies to train the critically unemployed, or Green Empowerment Zones to locate manufacturing jobs in urban areas, could ease the transition to spending cuts.
So far, the president and sensible members of Congress have stood firm in their refusal to give in to ideological extortion. As the President said in last week's press conference, "Any agreement to reduce our deficit is going to require tough decisions and balanced solutions. And, before we ask our seniors to pay more for health care, before we cut our children's education, before we sacrifice our commitment to the research and innovation that will help create more jobs in the economy, I think it's only fair to ask an oil company or a corporate jet owner that has done so well to give up a tax break that no other business enjoys." We agree. Raise the debt ceiling, but not on the backs of working and middle class Americans.
Marc H. Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.