Democrats, GOP clash over definition of ‘woke’ in budget hearing

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Republicans ramped up their focus on “woke waste” in the federal budget on Thursday, prompting fierce blowback and accusations of bigotry from Democrats.

Lawmakers clashed over what the word “woke” means and how spending cuts should be applied during the GOP-led House Budget Committee’s hearing on “woke, wasteful, bloated bureaucracy” under the Biden administration.

The hearing came as House Republicans and President Biden appeared no closer to clinching a deal on raising the debt ceiling, or on where to cut spending, after meeting earlier this week.

During the hearing, Republicans took aim at coronavirus relief passed under Biden, his administration’s sweeping student loan forgiveness plan, as well as energy and tax policies enacted through Democrats’ signature 2022 economic bill.

But House Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) also took aim at other spending he described as “woke earmarks,” including millions in funding to “promote dirt bike culture in Baltimore,” pride centers in San Diego, and “$3.6 million for the Michelle Obama trail in Decatur, Ga.”

“If the folks in New York want to build an LGBTQ museum, have at it,” he added. “But the people in Lubbock, Texas, ought not to underwrite it.”

The hearing arrives months after Democrats leveled charges of racism against Republicans as the party began to zero in on certain funding items as “woke” earlier this year.

“I think the real waste here is the waste of time in the Republican willingness to follow the call of President Trump just last night to drive our economy off the cliff,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said Thursday. “Instead of their much-ballyhooed promised budget, they offer us today to talk about woke policies.”

“They don’t really know what woke means, but it sounds a little bit Black, and it appeals to the white nationalists, who are so important in their base, as they send a message, a signal, that they don’t want to do anything about historic injustices to people of color,” he added.

Republicans have defended the ongoing push as part of a larger effort aimed at finding areas to draw down federal spending, as the party seeks concessions from Democrats in exchange for their help to raise the debt limit in the weeks ahead.

“It’s basically social programs that the government feels ought to be funded,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said when leaving the hearing. “That’s just a part of it. What we’re focusing on is the main question, why is this administration continuing to spend more money we don’t have?”

Regarding GOP criticism of funding for the trail named after Obama, Norman said the same logic would apply if it was named for former first lady Melania Trump.

“That’s not the federal government’s role,” Norman told The Hill.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) argued funding for the trail would fit more into the category of “wasteful spending.” But he also called out funding for items like Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives and “efforts to advance critical race theory,” which he said promoted an agenda that is “completely out of step with American people.”

“If it’s $1 billion, $2 billion or $100 billion of stupid expenditures, the fact is it’s a misguided priority that’s undermining the entire culture of these institutions,” Roy said Thursday.

Democrats see Republicans’ attacks on all things “woke” as a means to appeal to their conservative base on cultural issues, downplaying the amount of spending targeted as significant when taking into account the trillions of dollars the government spends on an annual basis.

“If we had $1 for every time Republicans say the word woke, we would have enough money to pay off the national debt,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, told The Hill on Thursday, calling some of the rhetoric used during the hearing “purposely divisive.”

In her opening remarks, Paige Agostin, a policy director at right-leaning think tank Center for Renewing America, argued the meaning of “woke” transformed into “identity-based Neo-Marxism” with a “goal is to destroy American society.”

“Wokeness is now essentially a taxpayer-funded secular religion crafted by secular elites to supplant the nation’s Judeo-Christian traditions that have stood the test of time,” Agostin testified.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) argued Republicans had a “warped definition” of the word during the hearing, before going on to cite a Merriam-Webster definition of the phrase reading, “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice.”

“In other words, it’s basic decency. It means treating all Americans fairly regardless of their skin color, background, religion, or gender identity,” she said.

Pressed for his stance on what is classified as “woke” funding, Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) told The Hill it meant “nothing good.”

“Bottom line, if you’re spending too much money on anything, spending money that’s not yours, it belongs to your children or your grandchildren, or doing things that are going to make America less competitive — that’s not good for this country,” he argued. “It’s not right.”

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