Election 2004  
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Kansas Fooled, Again

Immediately after the election, the Republican-led Congress convened in Washington, dropped their culture war, and passed a gigantic spending bill loaded with corporate pork.
 
 
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In his best-selling “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” Thomas Frank argues that conservatives have perfected the trick of selling a “social backlash” to voters while trampling their economic interests:  “Vote to stop abortion, receive a rollback in capital gains taxes.” 

Playing to form, the Republican-led Congress convened in Washington immediately after the election in which they benefited from peddling guns and gays, flag and family.  Immediately, they voted down the constitutional amendment on gay marriage, happily dispatching it without much fuss.  Then they rolled 13 appropriations bills that they had failed to pass before the election into one large omnibus $388 billion bill — numbering more than 1,000 pages and weighing 14 pounds — which no one had time to read.

Buried in the midst of that monstrosity was a provision that gives the education secretary the authority to cut Pell grants, the government’s leading scholarship program for deserving sons and daughters of America’s middle- and low-income families.  The education department plans to change the expected financial contribution formula for families, with 90,000 students likely to lose grants completely aid and another 1.2 million suffering cuts. 

Those endangered are children of families that make less than $50,000 a year and sacrifice to be able to send their children to college.  These families tighten their belts, and their children scrape together loans, grants and part- time work to pay their way through college.  Pell grants have failed to keep up with soaring college tuitions, but they are often vital to give students a chance to stay in school.  Frank had it right:  Republicans seduced “Kansas” with the faux populism on guns and shafted them with cuts in the Pell grants that their kids depend on. 

In an economy that depends on an ever more educated populace, this poison pill makes no sense from policy grounds.  It saves about $300 million — even as the Republican majority is intent on extending tax breaks that put about $30 billion a year into the pockets of millionaires.  It forces kids to leave college, even as the president plans to ask for another $70 billion for Iraq.  (Perhaps this is one way the Pentagon expects to solve its recruiting problems).  And, with White House insisting on the measure, it mocks the president’s campaign promise to raise the level of Pell grants. 

The congressional action has received almost no attention in the press.  Republicans have perfected the ways to shaft Kansas without anyone noticing. Pass the bill on Friday afternoon. Bury the provision in a 1,000-page bill that no one reads.  Don’t make the cuts directly, just delegate the authority to the education secretary.  When the cuts come, Republican legislators will line up to express their shock to outraged constituents. 

But we’re about to test just how long they can continue this scam.  Next spring, the president’s budget will call for cuts in education and health care across the boards — even while seeking a supplemental of about $70 billion more for Iraq, and demanding that the top end tax cuts be made permanent.

The voters who elected Mr. Bush and expanded the Republican majorities in the House and Senate didn’t vote for these priorities.  In an election day poll undertaken by Stan Greenberg for the Institute for America’s Future, voters by 54 to 40 said investing in education and health care and energy independence takes priority over deficit reduction. 

When asked how to cut the deficit, closing corporate tax havens was the top choice, followed closely by rolling back tax cuts for the top one percent.  “Scaling back further spending” on education and health care was the least popular choice. 

Of course, without a loud, extended battle — with extensive press coverage — most people won’t hear about the choices being made.  Here, Democrats too often aren’t much help.  Democrats in the House are aroused, but they are literally locked out of legislating by House Boss Tom DeLay.  Amendments aren’t allowed; drafting sessions are closed; debate is limited; alternatives aren’t allowed to come to a vote.  

In the Senate, the Democratic minority has greater power, but the Senate Democratic barons are scattered and scared.  Tom Daschle’s defeat has many scurrying to find common ground with conservatives. 

This time, however, conservative bait-and-switch won’t go unnoticed.  As the election showed, progressives are building an independent capacity to inform and mobilize people.  Last fall, for example, a coalition led by the Campaign for America’s Future, the National Education Association, Moveon.org  and others organized over 4,000 house parties on education in every state of the union.  That was just a warm-up for what’s likely to take place in the coming months. 

No doubt, Republicans will continue to posture on guns and gays.  They’ll keep wrapping themselves in the flag and peddling piety, even as they lard benefits on the wealthy and cater to their corporate cronies.  But this time, Kansas may just hear about the gulf between rhetoric and reality, and begin to get a sense of how the shift gives them the shaft. 

Robert L. Borosage , a veteran strategist and institution builder, is co-director of the Campaign for America's Future .