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updated: 3/14/2013 10:26 AM

Where's the beef?

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In an iconic commercial, two white-haired ladies, after looking inside a nearly empty hamburger bun, demand of the hapless fast-food clerk, "Where's the beef?" The phrase expresses outrage at false advertising -- pretending there's something of substance in the sandwich when there's really nothing there.

False advertising or false political posturing: When it comes to Republican panic over debt and taxes, it's time to look over our bifocals and demand, "Where's the beef?"

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Recently, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said, "We're going to have to talk to each other in order ... to delay a debt crisis, how to save this country from the fiscal train wreck that's coming."

As if talking across the aisle is so hard. Here's an idea for Ryan, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: Stop crowing about the sequester cuts at the same time you're flapping in faux panic about the effect of the cuts. Instead of trying to force-feed rancid austerity down the throats of the American public, sit down with President Obama and congressional Democrats and work on a fiscal recipe that empowers the middle class. I'll even cook up some gumbo for the confab.

When Ryan told reporters this week that the budget "will come to a crescendo this summer," all I could do was sigh. Another manufactured crisis.

What are the ingredients of our fiscal stew? Wall Street and the financial markets for one. What was Wall Street's reaction to the sequester? A yawn. The Dow Jones has been setting record highs. Apparently, Wall Street thinks business is good and the financial future bright, regardless of the sequester, debt ceiling, budget crisis or whatever from Congress.

But taxes? Taxes are a plague; they're like leprosy. Surely taxes are too high!

But are taxes too high? Not according to a November analysis by The New York Times, which reported, "the combination of all income taxes, sales taxes and property taxes took a smaller share of their income (in 2010 -- the latest year available for the study) than it took from households with the same inflation-adjusted income in 1980."

Didn't the fiscal cliff deal raise income taxes? Again, no -- not for 99 percent of Americans. A Jan. 14 article in Forbes explains that "the fiscal deal extended the income tax rates for 99 percent of Americans" -- i.e., kept them low. Returning the Social Security payroll taxes back to the 6.2 percent rate was NOT a tax hike, but the end of a two-year payroll tax holiday to "help lower and middle class taxpayers weather the recession."

Further, the article states, "Payroll taxes don't go to the president's cigar-and-booze budget. Rather, they are earmarked for Social Security" -- guaranteeing your future pension.

But, wait! Isn't the debt too high? Isn't the deficit out of control? Doesn't Washington have a spending addiction? Doesn't it need to go on a crash spending diet?

Again, no. Washington is in the midst of trimming almost $4 trillion from the federal budget, stirring in spending cuts, some revenue from the so-called fiscal cliff deal and savings on the interest on the debt. The plan Obama has put forth deals with the debt without imposing austerity, providing instead a recipe to grow our national economy. (Sort of a "tastes good, less filling" approach to issues like jobs, education, infrastructure, energy, etc.)

That $4 trillion figure was the goal of the deficit hawks Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles and their commission, by the way. It's also the figure that both sides agreed would be needed to rein in the national debt. And $4 trillion in cuts -- deficit reduction -- is what Paul Ryan proposed in his budget for 2011.

So where's the beef?

The argument was never really about spending cuts vs. increased revenue, since both Democrats and Republicans agreed the cuts were going to happen. The only question was who got hurt in the process. Ryan's austerity-for-the-middle-class, prosperity-for-the-upper-class approach was soundly rejected on Election Day 2012. But this week, Ryan held a press conference to hound Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray's budget plan, which hasn't even been released yet. It doesn't matter what's in Murray's plan. For Ryan and congressional Republicans, whatever it is, they're against it.

Until the country demands, "Where's the beef?" we'll have political heartburn -- politicians grandstanding and casting blame rather than working together to solve problems.

Yes, President Obama and congressional Democrats deserve some of the blame, but since the ascent of the Tea Party on Capitol Hill, the Republican strategy has been to shut down the federal government by any means possible and paralyze the country rather than agree to anything progressive that President Obama might propose.

This is no way to run a superpower.

COPYRIGHT 2013, United Features Syndicate

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