Congress cuts LIHEAP — because giving billions to the rich is no fun unless you also get to screw the poor

Susie Madrak notes that the shutdown deal in Congress cuts winter heating aid for low-income families.

I used to be confused as to why LIHEAP was always among the first programs on the chopping block when states or the federal government wanted to cut the budget.

LIHEAP, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, helps low-income families pay the heating bill.

Congress just cut the program by 25 percent — or $3.5 billion. Every one of those dollars would have gone to keep a poor family warm in the winter, meaning that those families wouldn’t have KEPT any of it. Every dollar of that funding would have quickly passed through the hands of those families and gone directly to big corporations — first the utility companies, then the energy companies that supply them.

And that’s why these cuts confused me. I figured that, very roughly speaking, we’ve got two kinds of lawmakers: the kind who like welfare programs for the poor and the kind who like corporate welfare. LIHEAP is both of those things. Every dollar of it does double duty — the poor make it through the winter and big corporations get handed billions of dollars of taxpayer money. Win-win. Everybody’s happy.

But then in 2007 I watched the financial crisis happened and the powers that be sprang into action to rescue the banks — as they absolutely ought to have done. The global financial system had ground to a halt and the world’s economies were teetering on the brink until the Treasury and the Congress slapped together the TARP and bailed out the faltering banks with $700 billion.

At the time, this seemed like an outrageous surprise. But it did have to be done. If not for the TARP, or Troubled Asset Relief Program, the jobs crisis we’re still stuck in would likely have been even more severe. But while the banks had to be saved, they didn’t necessarily have to be saved in that way.

The banks were given the money to make up for expected losses from “toxic assets.” Those toxic assets were things like home mortgages from homeowners whose houses were suddenly worth far less than the cost of the loan.

So there were two ways to bail out the banks. We could have given a chunk of that $700 billion to those underwater homeowners, turning those “toxic assets” into just plain assets. That money, like LIHEAP funds, would have passed quickly through the hands of those homeowners and on to the banks.  And thus, like LIHEAP, the TARP would have solved two problems at the same time — simultaneously lifting underwater families out of debt and bailing out the banks.

But instead, the TARP funds went directly to the banks. Thus the banks got bailed out, but the homeowners are still in debt.

And I realized that this is how it works.

We had to help the banks without helping the homeowners — help the creditors without helping the debtors — for the same reason that LIHEAP is always first in line for budget cuts. Because, for the people running the show, it’s no fun giving billions of dollars to the super-rich unless you’re also screwing over the poor.

This was, after all, how the tea party started — with CNBC’s Rick Santelli ranting against mortgage modifications for homeowners left underwater after the housing market collapsed.

“How many people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgages?” Santelli screamed. “It’s time for another tea party.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we can’t have nice things.

  • P J Evans

    On the other hand, it’s only tradition that the Senate can’t actually change the rules. No congress is actually bound by the rules of its predecessors: they just do it from inertia. I’d favor making them write all their rules from scratch every two years, just to make them notice what they’re doing. (One change I’d like to see, and it may actually require a law to do it: no one should get floor privileges after they leave office. It would limit the access that ex-congresscritters have as lobbyists after they leave and supposedly become ordinary citizens again.)

  • ako

    I think that the Democratic party is suffering from the worst salesmanship I have ever seen.  Two of the most common arguments I’ve heard from Democratic party supporters are “They might not accomplish anything, but at least they slow down the harm Republicans do, and if you don’t support the marginally less bad, you’re personally responsible for the death of everyone killed due to Republican policies” and “You can’t blame them for their failures when Republicans and/or conservative Democrats had any power at all!  They can’t do anything when there are difficulties!” 

    Those are both dismal, depressing, morale-sapping arguments.  The first might be a way to get people to hold their noses and vote Democratic yet again for one more year, but it’s going to contribute to the sense of futility and despair that ultimately drives people to political apathy.  Plus, people tend to dislike a person who’s constantly deluging them with massive amounts of guilt.  The second argument makes the party look weak, pathetic, and utterly useless, which isn’t going to motivate anyone to support it.  If you spend years trying to help an organization get stronger and more effective, and have your efforts constantly rewarded with “We can’t do anything!  We’re too weak!  Push us over this next barrier!” and it turns out that after the next barrier they’re still whining about how weak and helpless they are and how they can’t possibly be expected to do anything when there are difficulties, it starts to look like a problem that can’t be fixed with more of the same kind of help. 

    The weird thing is, if you look at Obama’s record in office, it should be possible to come up with more effective advocacy than “Democrats can’t do anything while Republican opposition exists!”  I mean Osama Bin Laden’s dead, the war in Iraq has officially ended, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is over, the Lilly Ledbetter Act got passed…unlike what one would guess from the “Well, there isn’t a filibuster-proof majority of Nancy Pelosi Clones, so we can’t do anything!” argument, it has not been four years utterly devoid of actual positive accomplishments.  But rather than going “Yeah, the Democrats sometimes fuck up by excessive compromising when they should stand firm, but they also do these other good things”, it’s back to the same old demoralizing whine. 

  • Ursula L

    It’s a matter of priorities.  I’m in Buffalo.  I just need to think over the events of all the years I’ve lived here for it to be utterly obvious that planning for proper snow removal is far more important than worrying about tsunamis.

    If you assume that there aren’t the resources to prepare everywhere for whatever is a risk there, then you need to prioritize which needs are more important than others. 

    And the things that you’ve actually seen cause problems are needs that are far more real to you, on a gut level, than things that you’ve only read about or seen on TV.  Who are you going to believe, experts with data or your own eyes, your own experiences and hardships?  

    Part of the problem is that progressive folks need to be very vocal that there are enough resources to plan and prepare sensibly for the needs of everyone.  

    Conservatives assume shortages, and set ordinary people with very different sets of needs against each other.  I say snow removal is more pressing than tsunami threats, someone on the coast in the south says that tsunami threats are far more important than snow removal.  Conservatives quote me as proof that tsunamis don’t matter, quote them as proof that snow removal doesn’t matter, and say that it is wasteful to prepare for either.  

    Humans have the resources and ability to prepare and provide for human needs.  It may sometimes mean that you compromise some wants to meet needs, but it also means you don’t have to set needs in competition against each other.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    The Senate can change its rules — no one denies that — but it doesn’t want to, because both parties anticipate that at some point in the future they will be in the minority and they don’t want the other side to run roughshod over them when they get into power. That’s why no one will actually try to get rid of the filibuster; it might be used to obstruct the Democratic agenda now, but in two years or four years it might be used to obstruct the Republican agenda.

    I like the idea of making them rewrite their rules every two years though, but I don’t think they’d scrap the filibuster.

  • Lori

    I think at some level, the democrats believe what the republicans are sellling: that Real America is conservative, and any time the dems are in power, it is only a fluke — a sort of accident that happened not because the people want them in power, but because the people were distracted for a moment. 

    I think you’re right and it drives me up the wall because it’s not true.
    Conservatives love to say that America is a fundamentally conservative nation,
    but all indications are that it’s not. There are very conservative areas,
    but  when you poll at the level of policy, not party or label, American as
    a whole is pretty consistently center Left, not center Right and sure as hell
    not hard Right.

  • Chunky Style

    “Perfect analogy. The Republicans are nothing more than political terrorists, and you never, ever negotiate with hostage-takers.”

    Say what?  Of course you negotiate with hostage-takers in hopes of getting the hostages released safely.  That’s the entire point of taking hostages.  Please tell me you don’t work for the police department.

    Your strategy of letting filibusters happen just means that even less gets done in the Senate; true, the GOP has to put some work into it, but the Senate becomes even less functional.  I don’t see how that’s any better, and it certainly doesn’t get at the core of the problem.

  • P J Evans

    I’m not sure there is a way to fix the senate, short of electing an entirely new set of 100 – which will take three elections (four years, minimum).

  • Anonymous

    Say what?  Of course you negotiate with hostage-takers in hopes of getting the hostages released safely.  That’s the entire point of taking hostages.  Please tell me you don’t work for the police department.

    Oy vey. Do you actually understand the substance of police hostage negotiations? They aren’t actually negotiations in the sense of politics or business where two sides come to some sort of compromise. The majority of those negotiations are simply trying to talk the hostage taker down. As far as I know it is standard police procedure to never make any promises. Israel is particularly uncompromising in hostage negotiations (they’re more likely to use excessive, immediate force and damn the consequences), since Israel is well aware of the fact that as soon as it is known that taking hostages is an effective strategy, then everyone will be taking hostages.

    Your strategy of letting filibusters happen just means that even less gets done in the Senate; true, the GOP has to put some work into it, but the Senate becomes even less functional.  I don’t see how that’s any better, and it certainly doesn’t get at the core of the problem.

    First off, it wouldn’t happen. The GOP most emphatically does not have the willpower to maintain a filibuster, possibly over anything. The only reason they were and are filibustering is because it costs them nothing.

    And a less “functional Senate” is preferable to a Senate where bills to aid 9/11 rescue workers is filibustered. The core of the problem is that Republicans get to act like big bullies at no cost and no political capital. A show of strength and they fall apart.

    Particularly because the American people despise weakness. That’s why they vote for Republicans. Crazy is preferable to weak. Evil is preferable to weak. Autocratic is preferable to weak. The Democrats should have learned from 12 years of Republican rule, strength rules.

  • Ursula L

    Oy vey. Do you actually understand the substance of police hostage negotiations? They aren’t actually negotiations in the sense of politics or business where two sides come to some sort of compromise. The majority of those negotiations are simply trying to talk the hostage taker down. As far as I know it is standard police procedure to never make any promises.

    I think you may be on to something here.

    The GOP is not holding the government hostage.  

    The GOP is treating political negotiations as if they are the police and the other side are hostage-takers.  They aren’t trying to negotiate at all, they’re just trying to keep the other side talking until they can “rescue” the government from any type of non-GOP influence. 

    Which fits completely with the GOP tendency to treat anyone who disagrees with them as not being “really” American, and to treat any non-GOP power as illegitimate. 

    The problem is not that you can’t negotiate with hostage-takers.  Because hostage-taking is all about wanting to negotiate.  Political hostage-takers generally want to negotiate the safe release of the hostages in exchange for political consideration.  The problem is that you can’t negotiate with police, because the police refuse to actually negotiate, they only pretend to do so while planning a counter-attack.  

    “Give me everything I want, and then we’ll ‘negotiate’” isn’t negotiation.  But it is how the police act with hostage-takers, it’s how the US tends to act in situations where there is conflict or tension in international diplomacy, and it is how the GOP acts when it doesn’t have enough power to do what it wants and ignore the opposition.  It’s about dehumanizing the other side, and expecting the world to bow at your feet.

  • FangsFirst

    I normally feel weird about any demonization of law enforcement as a whole (whilst being perfectly aware that there’s a good-sized handful of bad apples in the bunch, all the same) and so the whole analogy of “C’mon, poor hostage-takers, evil, lying negotiators!” kinda weirds me out…
    but…

    Damn.

    It’s just…so…completely…

    Damn.

    Good job.

  • Ursula L

    My point isn’t “poor hostage takers.”

    My point is that the idea “you can’t negotiate with political hostage takers” is an inaccurate way to describe what is happening.

    Political hostage taking is all about negotiation.  I have something you want, you have something I want, lets trade.  Hostage takers have something they want, and they have someone whom they know has what they want, so they kidnap someone that the other side cares about.

    However, the problem is that terrorists and hostage takers don’t have a legal right to the thing they have, and making the exchange has the theoretical potential to provide an incentive for others to take hostages in the future.

    So, as a matter of policy, the police say “We choose not to negotiate with political hostage takers.”  The police capable of negotiating and the hostage takers are capable and willing.  “Can’t” is not the right word to describe what is happening.

    And the police do this, knowing that such a policy is saying, in effect “screw you, hostages, we care more about the policy and future hypothetical hostages than about you as individual human beings.”  

    The GOP could negotiate in good faith.  The other side aren’t criminals or hostage takers, they’re legitimately elected government officials.  But the GOP chooses to treat the others as Other, and to treat political opposition as criminal. 

  • FangsFirst

    My point isn’t “poor hostage takers.”

    Of course not, but in context, in the analogy, it at least kind of is. And, don’t get me wrong here: I think it’s the right point of view and utterly defensible.

    I was mostly just amazed that the analogy really is just dead on, and it’s weird because you’d think that would make sympathies go the other way *because* it’s so backward, but it’s so completely correct that it overcomes even the idea of “Woah, now, we’re siding with the metaphorical hostage-takers?!”

    Sorry…I was more interested in trying to convey the effect it had on me than explaining it…


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