City Council’s half-measure softens our voice on national debate

Last Wednesday, I sat and watched as the City Council went through one of those exercises in logic that have earned it a special place in our affections. Along the way, it denied Bostonians a chance to vote on a Washington maneuver that could devastate our families and the city’s finances. Namely, the deficit super-committee.

If you follow the news – and since you are reading this paper, it’s a pretty safe bet that you do – you know that Congress set up a super-committee and told it to find ways to cut the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next ten years. It can do that by taxing very wealthy investors, who are paying lower rates than we are, or corporations, which are sitting on record piles of cash. It can end the $170 billion wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and cut the Pentagon’s budget, which has almost doubled in the past ten years and now consumes almost half of all world military spending. Or it can raise the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare, slash food stamps and education funding, and make cuts in urban programs that will leave the city’s budget flat on its back.

Republicans on the super-committee have been saying taxes are off the table. Senator Kyl of Arizona told a Republican gathering, “I’m off the committee” if it even considers a dollar of Pentagon cuts. That leaves us balancing the entire deficit on our backs.

And, lest I forget, our own Senator Kerry is one of the super-committee’s 12 members.

Back to the City Council. Around one o’clock last Wednesday, Councillor Charles Yancey rose to propose a nonbinding opinion question on the November ballot. It said: Boston voters call on our federal elected officials to oppose cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and other vital domestic programs; create jobs; eliminate the deficit by closing corporate tax loopholes and raising taxes on wealthy families; and reduce military spending by ending the wars.

Councillor Tito Jackson seconded Yancey’s motion. Then, City Councillor Stephen Murphy rose to speak. The City Council is often criticized for taking positions on matters outside its authority, he said. Our congressional delegation is in lockstep with us on this question, and we’re lucky to have Senator Kerry representing us on the super-committee. Anyway, Election Day is too late to influence the super-committee, which started meeting last week.

Let’s not put a referendum on the ballot, Murphy concluded. Let’s pass a resolution instead.

Now, at least one thing Murphy said is demonstrably untrue. Two members of our congressional delegation are not in lockstep with us – our Senators. Senator Brown is likely to cut Social Security and devastate human service programs, not restore taxes on corporations or trim the Pentagon. And Senator Kerry is saying “Let’s compromise!” while the other side isn’t budging. Kerry reportedly fears that if the super-committee deadlocks, that will spook financial markets and send the economy into a tailspin. But there are bigger reasons why the economy is still tanking, like corporations sitting on mountains of money while our neighbors are wondering how to pay the mortgage.

Murphy sat down. Councillors Linehan, O’Malley, and Feeney spoke to support him. And then I watched as Boston’s nine white city councillors voted for Murphy’s amendment and our four councilors of color voted against it.

This leaves four questions in my mind.

If the City Council’s majority doesn’t want to take positions on federal matters, why did they pass a resolution that does exactly that? Why was the Council majority in such a hurry to pass a resolution they said wasn’t needed?

If Kerry is with us, why not strengthen his negotiating position and let him say, “The voters in my capital city are telling me to restore taxes and end the wars, not cut social programs?”

And why wouldn’t they want to give the voters of Boston a voice in a process that may devastate our futures and the city’s budget?

Mike Prokosch lives in Dorchester and helps to coordinate the New Priorities Network, which is calling for Pentagon cuts to create jobs and save services.