Sounding the Wrong Alarm

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s time on the House floor Friday was spent speculating on the racist nature of conservative politicians instead of warning of the dangers to her constituents of not raising the debt limit, says Sam Fulwood III.

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La Representante Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) indicó en el pleno de la Cámara el viernes que los miembros del Congreso se niegan a aumentar el límite de la deuda porque el presidente es afroamericano. (Flickr/<a href=@mjb )" data-srcset=" 610w, 610w, 610w, 500w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
La Representante Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) indicó en el pleno de la Cámara el viernes que los miembros del Congreso se niegan a aumentar el límite de la deuda porque el presidente es afroamericano. (Flickr/@mjb )

In the midst of the often contentious congressional debate over raising the debt ceiling, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) lost her cool. She implied during a fiery rant Friday on the House floor that some members of Congress were refusing to fund government because President Barack Obama is an African American.

Jackson Lee, who is black and represents a district that is overwhelmingly African American, wondered if the debate was a case of hidden racism. “I do not understand what I think is the maligning and maliciousness (toward) this president,” she said in her comments, recorded by C-SPAN and before a collection of mostly empty seats. “Why is he different?”

Most mainstream news outlets ignored Jackson Lee’s outburst, which is a good thing. It was, however, fodder for right-wing bloggers and racist commentary on the few websites that gave attention to her comments, which is a not-so-good thing. Indeed, the congresswoman’s comments feed into the partisan and polarizing atmosphere that poisons Congress’s ability to reach compromise. And they raise a couple of questions.

First, why would an experienced member of the Congressional Black Caucus give the president’s critics ammunition to fire at him? Her unhelpful comments, coming at a critical stage of the delicate debt deliberations, offered a moment of glee for right-wing bloggers in casting Jackson Lee as a racist.

Not that she or her constituents care a whit what nameless, faceless bloggers write or think. And that’s part of why she took to the floor to vent her frustrations and to lift up the anger she was hearing in her district. “And in my community, that is the question that we raise,” she said in her speech. “Why is this president being treated so disrespectfully? Why has the debt limit been raised 60 times? … read between the lines. What is different about this president that should put him in a position that he should not receive the same kind of respectful treatment of when it is necessary to raise the debt limit in order to pay our bills, something required by both statute and the 14th Amendment?”

It’s politics, congresswoman, not bean bag. Only the most naïve Washington watcher would’ve expected the president’s opponents to behave in any other fashion. Those conservative politicians, puffed up by antigovernment Tea Party activists in their ranks, will do and say almost anything to cripple this president and his policies. But that’s no excuse for a progressive defender of the president and his policies to sink down to their level and play their hater’s game.

Which raises the second question: Why didn’t Jackson Lee use her valuable time and energy in a more constructive way to inform and inspire her constituents? That wouldn’t have been hard. Instead of appealing to their baser feelings (like Tea Party activists), why not recite some facts and figures about what Congress’s inaction will cost those in her community?

Consider, for example, that the government anticipates August revenues of $172.4 billion and expenditures of $306.7 billion. If Congress refuses to raise the Treasury’s ability to borrow by August 2 or thereabouts, the outflow will exceed the income. Then the government defaults on some of its bills. So who gets paid?

Andrew Leonard at offered a credible budget priority list should the government be forced to choose which bills to pay and in what order. Needless to say, such a list would give priority to government securities interest payments ($29 billion), Social Security ($49.2 billion), Medicare ($28.6 billion), Medicaid ($21.4 billion), and military and defense contractors ($38 billion). That pretty much hits the fiscal wall right there.

Remaining are unemployment benefits, federal worker salaries, food stamps, the Justice Department and all other cabinet offices, highway funding, and much, much more.

According to an analysis by Gaibrielle Bryant, my research intern and a contributor to CAP’s Progress 2050, any cuts to government programs due to the failure to extend the debt ceiling will drastically impact every single person in this country. But for people of color, the cuts will be especially harsh because of their dependence on government-support services.

One simple example is the federal support for Pell Grants, which are administered by the Department of Education. Recipients will be denied money for college if that department is shuttered and there’s no money for the grants. That disproportionally affects recipients of color, who are most dependent on the grants, including African Americans (11.8 percent), Latinos (13.2 percent), and Asians (6.8 percent).

And consider yet another potential disaster in the making if the Temporary Assistance for Needy Family program is cut or curtailed. In fiscal year 2009 the federal government made available $16.5 billion in TANF block grants to the states and another $5 billion in emergency funds to the states. In Texas, where Jackson Lee calls home, roughly half the fiscal year 2004 TANF funds (the most recent year for when detailed figures are available) went to Latino residents and about a third went to black residents.

This is the alarm Jackson Lee should have sounded on the House floor, warning of the consequences if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling. She could have cast a spotlight on the real dangers instead of the simple-minded, emotional appeal to her supporters’ fears about the nature and motives of irrepressible political attacks on the president. In doing so, she would have helped her constituents—and the nation—better understand what’s at risk.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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