By Alex Garner
Editor's Note: Today's guest contributor is Brenden Shucart. Brenden is an actor/writer/adovocate living with HIV in LA.
Monday morning President Barack Obama, surrounded by a group of middle-class families, called a press conference in the White House to announce that a compromise had still not been reached with congress to avoid going over the looming “fiscal cliff,” but he assured America that he remain “hopeful” a deal could be reached before the midnight deadline.
He was wrong, America went over the fiscal cliff. At least, very briefly.
The “cliff,” also known as “sequestration” or the “austerity bomb” is a crisis manufactured in the halls and cloak rooms of congress as a byproduct of the Budget Control Act, a bill signed last year by President Obama as part of a deal between Republicans and Democrats to raise the national debt limit. It consists of massive, potentially economy killing tax increases on virtually every American, and sweeping cuts to government programs for a combined reduction $1.2 trillion (yes, trillion with a ‘t’) over the next ten years.
What kind of cuts? There will be reductions to both defense spending and domestic government programs worth $110 billion per year; the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts; the end of a payroll tax holiday and extended unemployment benefits; and reimbursement cuts to Medicare doctors. This means a cut of approximately $538 million to Federal HIV/AIDS programs, including-
• Funding for HIV prevention at the Centers for Disease Control would be cut by $64 million
• The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, which provides care to low income people with the disease, would be cut by $196 million, including $77 million in cuts from the AIDS Drug Assistance Program
• AIDS research at the National Institutes of Health would be cut by $251 million
• The Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS, or HOPWA, program would be cut by $27 million.
But shortly after 2am on New Year’s Day the Senate leadership grasped onto a deal to keep us from plummeting to the rocks below and passed it 89-8. Later that afternoon the House followed suit, with only 85 Republicans joining the Democrats to temporarily avert complete economic disaster.
The compromise the Senate managed to cobble together is, at best, a stopgap measure. It allows the payroll tax holiday to expire as planned, preserves the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle and the extended unemployment benefits for another year while raising taxes on individuals making more than $400,000 per year. And it puts off the spending cuts for a few extra months. All of which means we are still dangling from the edge of the cliff by the slimmest of ropes.
If that rope snaps and we do go over this cliff we as a community are not going to walk away unscathed. If congress doesn’t act to save these programs we will lose access to medication and housing for those living with HIV, and access to testing for those who don’t yet know their status, which will undoubtedly result in soaring viral loads and a spike in new infections across the country. It would be an unimaginable blow to our national struggle against HIV. And the international struggle will be kneecapped as well by as yet uncalculated cuts to The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the US Government’s contributions to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS.
Not to mention the other calamities that await us at the bottom; like a downgrade in the US Credit Rating, a slip in the value of the Dollar, and return of the Great Recession or even another Great Depression.
But I’ve always believed that the New Year is a time for fresh starts and new beginnings. And though the Senate’s compromise only averts disaster by a couple of months, it gives the President and his opponents the opportunity to make long needed structural changes to our tax code and to finally set some sensible priorities when it comes to defense spending and domestic programs. With a new congress and a new year President Obama might finally be able to pull us back over and away from this cliff and return the United States to a path of prosperity.
Or in two months we might just find ourselves in this same exact position- feet dangling over the maw of a disaster of our own making, wondering how we got here in the first place.