Martin Schram - We need budget plan before party conventions

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It's time for us to lead our leaders. We have just three weeks to take control of our destiny and our democracy.

Just three weeks before the Republicans and then the Democrats drape themselves in red, white and blue at their presidential conventions, flaunting their political finery that, upon closer inspection, will be revealed as just a 21st-century tailoring of the emperor's new clothes. Egad, send the children from the room! We'll see our leaders are starkers (!), their naked electoral aspirations exposed for all to see.

But even then, will we really understand what our leaders are doing to us? Will we realize that despite all their rhetorical red-white-and-bluing, they are unpatriotically dissing us by hiding until after Election Day what they plan to do about a $1 trillion fiscal time bomb they rigged to explode in our faces after we've voted?

Will we understand we waited too long to exert our only electoral leverage?

To be specific: A year ago, Republicans and Democrats rigged a budget-slashing bomb to automatically cut, or sequester, $1 trillion -- including $500 billion in new defense cuts that all sides agree will be a national security disaster and will increase U.S. unemployment.

Leaders of both parties made the sequester unacceptably draconian to impel themselves to do what's right: enact a debt-reduction solution well before the Jan. 2 deadline. Avoid repeating the 2011 last-second, edge-of-the-cliff calamity that shattered global confidence that U.S. leaders would keep fiscal promises.

It was right about here in this column that I'd planned to again blast the news media for failing to fully tell voters what the sequester will do to them. But last Saturday afternoon, CNN's Ali Velshi and Christine Romans did just that. They gave viewers the year's finest, fairest, clearest non-political look at the real consequences of our blind rush toward the Jan. 2 "fiscal cliff." (Perhaps because it was substantive, not the tabloid stuff TV execs think you want, CNN aired this prime-time-worthy journalism in Saturday's 1 p.m. ET slot that attracts very few eyeballs. But at least it aired.)

Anchor Velshi began by laying out the very theme I'd drafted to spring on you -- that politicians aren't telling us the truth about the economy. "America could be headed to another recession and there may not be much that can you do to protect yourself," he said. "There is one thing you can do: Understand how Congress is dangling you over a fiscal cliff."

If Congress fails to act and the sequester kicks in Jan. 2, CNN reported, middle-class Americans face dire consequences: Income taxes will rise when Bush-era tax cuts expire. Retirees living off stock dividends could see their taxes double. More job cuts will occur.

"The cuts will lead to immediate reductions in procurement spending in the private sector, which could result in two million direct job losses in fiscal year 2012 and 2013," Romans reported. She said experts estimate 500,000 job cuts in professional and business services; 350,000 in manufacturing; 300,000 in the federal workforce; and significant job cuts for contractors, suppliers and vendors doing business with federal agencies.

Indeed, those cuts already have begun. Fearing the sequester, federal agencies and contractors have already halted planned hiring until they know the jobs will be needed.

All of that is why all Americans need to learn the truth and take control of their destiny -- before it is too late.

But President Barack Obama has failed to boldly seize this leadership moment by educating America and demanding that Congress stay in session and not party conventionally until it has a far-reaching plan to shrink deficits. Both parties fear cutting popular programs, raising revenue and reforming taxes and entitlements before Election Day. Then, as Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's rush by, do you really think a lame-duck Congress will give us anything other than more political quackery? Another lame, decision-delaying gimmick?

"It's like congressional malpractice," said CNN's Romans. Exactly.

That's why we have just three weeks to act. Three weeks in which we must come together as patriots -- the Tea Party people, the Occupy Wall Street people, uncommitted middle-class cul-de-sac people -- and lead our leaders.

Can our leaders really accomplish anything in just three weeks? Yes -- when it's in their mutually self-preserving political interest, as we saw Tuesday. Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner quickly and quietly agreed to a continuing resolution preventing a government shutdown when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. They knew fed-up Americans would be yelling, "Throw all the bums out!" in the campaign's last month.

Now we must demand that our leaders act to save us from the fiscal time bomb. And we must demand they reveal their solutions now, before we give them democracy's most precious gift: our votes.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)

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