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Debt deal will undermine middle-class prosperity

(Editor's note: Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, voted against the recent bill raising the U.S. debt ceiling. This opinion piece explains why.)

I spent several days immersed in the details of this budget deal, trying to understand its real-world impact on Oregon's middle class and small businesses. I have a single, simple measure to evaluate this proposal: Is it going to create greater opportunities for prosperity and success for working Americans? Unfortunately, I have concluded that it will not, and so I cannot support it.

First, this deal will contribute to the gathering storm threatening to make our current unemployment crisis even worse. Our unsustainable deficits are absolutely a long-term challenge that we must address. But millions of Oregonians and Americans are out of work right now. And with at least 5 million foreclosures looming, with the expiration of extended unemployment benefits forecast to cost half a million jobs next year, with the payroll tax holiday ending and costing another estimated 900,000 jobs in 2012, we should be relentlessly preoccupied with how to create more jobs. Instead, this package will add to the job losses, repeating the mistakes that have caused prolonged economic slumps in this country and elsewhere.

Second, this deal will do serious damage to the programs that middle class Americans depend on. The bulk of the deficit reduction is piled onto that small part of the budget that funds things such as Head Start, college financial aid, research into clean energy and medical cures and safeguards against contaminated food and polluted air and water. These sorts of programs combined are less than one-fifth of the budget. And we are spending the same amount on them today in a real-dollars, per-person basis, as we did in 2001. Yet these programs -- critical to helping families in tough times, to giving kids the tools they need to succeed and to keeping our economy competitive so there are good jobs in the future - would endure as much as 15 percent in cuts. Mortgaging the middle class's future and increasing their burdens now do not make America stronger.

Moreover, while all reasonable people can understand the need for belt-tightening to bring down our unsustainable deficits, this plan exempts the wealthy and well-connected. The many subsidies and entitlements that they enjoy are tucked away in the tax code, which has been put off- limits. So despite the dramatic increases in income of the best off in our nation since 2000, the sweetheart deals that litter the tax code are protected.

Finally, this flawed product is the result of irresponsible threats to torpedo the economy by refusing to pay America's bills. The editorials are full of phrases like "extortion," "hostage-taking" and "lunacy." President Reagan himself said, "This brinkmanship threatens the holders of bonds and those who rely on veterans benefits. Markets would skyrocket, instability would occur and the federal deficit would soar. The United States has a special responsibility to itself and to the world to meet its obligations.'"

A default would be enormously damaging to every American, and I respect and value the hard work of the president and Sen. Harry Reid to avoid that calamity despite the unreasonable ransom demands they were facing. But at some point, we must finally stand up for the middle class and insist that their jobs and their futures be our priority, or this ugly drama will repeat itself again and again.

I am fully committed to work toward real compromise, one that asks for sacrifice from everyone who can afford it to tackle our long-term debt challenges. I'm prepared to make hard choices when those choices are necessary to solve our nation's challenges and make it stronger. However, I cannot endorse a process that will worsen our economy, burden middle-class families, reduce our children's opportunities in the future and doesn't ask those who have so much already to contribute one thin dime.

Somewhere in the frenzy of economic anxiety, ideology, and electoral politics, Washington has lost its way. The greatness of America and the strength of our economy cannot be separated from the well-being of the American middle class. If we continue to sacrifice their prosperity to subsidize the well-off and well-connected, we sacrifice America's future.