When Senate Democrats announced earlier this year their intention — after nearly four years of strategic waffling — to finally put forward a budget, few lawmakers were more thrilled than Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.).
Sessions, the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, had been the foremost agitator against the majority party’s fiscal fecklessness. “This will be a very important time,” he says. “We need the Democratic party to quit lying back and attacking Republicans who are laying out a plan to put the country on a sound financial footing, while they never expose themselves with any plan.”
Yet the three-term senator remains unsatisfied with the budget debate in Washington, and this time, Sessions is calling on Republicans to change their ways. If the GOP hopes to have any success in the upcoming budget debate, he says, it needs to modify how it approaches debate over financial issues, particularly with respect to the poor. In short: more offense, less defense.
Sessions outlined his concerns in a February 11 strategy memo to his Republican colleagues. “To an alarming degree,” he wrote, Democrats have succeeded in “framing the fiscal debate as a choice between fiscal restraint and compassion,” where the GOP is cast as “the enemy of the working class and the protectors of the rich.” The Democratic storyline, Sessions says, is “an attack on the very integrity of Republicans,” and it must not go unanswered.
Standard GOP counterarguments — laments of “class warfare,” ineffectual defense of “job creators,” attacks on failed Democratic leadership — are insufficient, Sessions says. These well-worn talking points not only fail to rebut the opposition’s pointed attacks, they also fail to present a moral case for conservative reform.
“We need to emphasize, first and foremost, that not only are we concerned that we’re not creating enough jobs to reduce unemployment and raise wages, but the reason we’re very concerned is that it’s hurting Americans, in particular poor Americans, and we are determined to do something about it,” he says. “And we need to make clear that the stated tax-and-spend policies of the Left are a major cause” of that harm.
Sessions previewed this new tone last week during a budget-committee hearing, directly challenging Senator Patty Murray (D., Wash.), the committee chairman, for recently accusing Republicans of “protecting the rich above all else” and “starving programs that help middle-class families and the most vulnerable Americans.”
“I resent the fact that people suggest that because we have a different view of how to help poor people, we somehow don’t care about them,” Sessions said. “My goal is to help protect working Americans from the social and economic harm that is caused by policies of this president and the Senate majority.”
One of Sessions’s principal targets is the vast array of increasingly bloated federal welfare programs. He has called for a “return to the moral principles of the 1996 welfare reform.” These principles have been undercut, he says, by the prevailing tendency to cast any effort to restructure these programs as a callous assault on the poor. Sessions recalls the words of Representative Jan Schakowsky (D., Ill.), who recently accused Republicans of voting to “literally take food out of the mouths of hungry babies.”
“The message was clear [in 1996] that the welfare programs were entrapping people, demoralizing recipients, and that this was bad for them, not just bad for the U.S. Treasury, but bad for the recipients themselves,” Sessions says. “What we need to do now is to ask ourselves: ‘Have we drifted back into dependency mode?’ The answer is yes. And can we lift ourselves out again? Yes.”
To help make his case, Sessions is enlisting, among others, Bob Woodson, a noted community activist and the founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Woodson, who helped organize Paul Ryan’s address on poverty at Cleveland State University during the recent presidential campaign, testified during last week’s budget-committee hearing, where he argued that systemic dysfunction and a culture of dependency, not a lack of funding, are the central problems plaguing the country’s welfare programs.
“If we were going to have won the war on poverty with spending, it would have been done a long time ago,” Woodson said, noting that the federal government has spent nearly $20 trillion on aid to the poor since the War of Poverty was first declared in 1964. “If we want to help those in need, we need to ask: ‘Is the approach we are taking to relieve poverty by what we call the safety net actually helping, or is it injuring with the helping hand?’”
Sessions knows all too well that he and other conservative reformers are up against entrenched opposition. He recalls being “attacked for not caring about children” after he proposed an amendment to modestly reduce the growth of food-stamp programs by closing a loophole that allowed individuals to receive food stamps even if their assets exceeded the legal limit for eligibility.
When it comes to welfare reform and other financial matters, Republicans should stop invoking deficit reduction as the primary impetus for conservative policies, he says. Instead, they should focus on advancing a moral argument. Sessions says the GOP’s failure to do so explains, at least in part, its poor showing in the 2012 election.
“What we should have said is: ‘We know why you’re having hard time getting a job,’” he says, “‘We know why you’re having a hard time getting a pay raise. We know why your raises are falling behind the inflation rate. And the reason is that we’ve got flawed economic leadership.’ We need to challenge Democrats: ‘Your programs are causing the welfare, your programs are causing poverty, your programs are trapping people in dependency, your programs will not work and have never worked and won’t work now.’”
“It’s a better message than ‘We’re cutting welfare simply because we want to save money,’” he adds. “It’s the right message.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.