Busting the Budget

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published February 17, 2011.
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My inbox has been crowded these last days by requests that I sign on to this draft letter or that, all demanding that budgets cuts proposed by House Republicans be restored. AmeriCorps fears it will be eliminated entirely. Federal help to states to defray some of the costs of special education would take a significant hit; so would the program that helps poor people pay for heating oil in the winter, a 66% cut. Mentoring for children of prisoners would be eliminated and Head Start cut by 15%. Community health centers would lose 46% of their current funding, and treatment of substance abuse would be cut by more than $200 million. PBS and NPR would be zeroed out. Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, chairman of appropriations subcommittee responsible for the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency, proposes to cut the EPA’s budget by $3 billion; his goal, he says, is to keep the EPA from implementing greenhouse gas regulations through the remainder of the fiscal year, so that the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Fred Upton, has time to pass a long-term bill blocking such regulations.

To President Obama’s credit, his budget calls for targeted increases alongside his proposed cuts; given the constraints, there is much to recommend it. But the unpleasant truth is that all the key actors are dancing around America’s fiscal woes rather than dealing with them straightforwardly. We are where we are principally because we chose to fight two wars and massively increase expenditures on homeland security without raising taxes, not because the core budget is full of bloat. And oh yes, there’s a recession.

The unsustainable deficit our country faces cannot — repeat, cannot — be adequately addressed by tinkering with the 12% of the federal budget that is consumed by discretionary spending, not even if all the cuts that have been proposed are in fact approved. Aside from the military and interest on our accumulated debt, the major components of our annual budget are Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Ignore those and you leave the deficit inadequately addressed.

The American people by and large don’t get that. A modest majority of us want to reduce the deficit, but more than 80% of us oppose cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. We vastly prefer substantial cuts in foreign aid, which most Americans evidently think eats up about 20% of the federal budget. But foreign aid in fact nibbles at leftovers, claiming just about 1% of government expenditures.

None of what I’ve said so far will come as a surprise to people who follow such things even cursorily. And it surely will not shock the folks on Capitol Hill or in the White House. They are reluctant to act because it is by no means clear how to make major cuts in either Medicare or Medicaid without significantly reducing the services those programs provide. And as to Social Security, it has for so long been called “the third rail” of American politics — touch it and you’re dead — that few people want to go there, even though fully half the Social Security problem would be resolved were we simply to eliminate the regressive wage base cap, and the Social Security system is intact for the next 20 or more years. Its contribution to the deficit? Zero.

Back to my e-mail inbox: When I get a petition to support PBS and NPR, the clear implication is that whatever else the budget includes, PBS and NPR deserve special treatment. So also AmeriCorps. So also the EPA — and on and on, each group lobbying for its own half-acre of support. We are divided, and they conquer, and that is no way to make things right.

I am very far from being an expert on the budget. I know a fair amount about hunger, about expenditures on the environment and about education. For the rest, I rely on others — on Paul Krugman in The New York Times, on Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and on my very own secret weapon, my brother, professor emeritus at the Harvard Medical School and one of the nation’s most seasoned experts on the costs of health care. I do, however, know a fair amount about political and community organization, and among the things I know is that unless the special pleaders learn to plead in unison, they will not only fail most every time, but they will deserve their failure. Citizens cannot fairly be asked to engage in economic triage, determining whether homeland security is in more urgent need than scientific research, whether Head Start should be spared but NPR doomed. That way lies madness — and failure.

The Republicans propose to slash everything; as Krugman says, they want to eat the future, meaning our nation’s seed corn. The president wants the right hand to cut while the left hand invests, and though the details deserve debate, that may be the best we can do. But the affected programs and agencies? Evidently, their slogan is “Him, her — not ME!” Let us instead take a page from the Egyptian revolution: The only solution is for us all to stand as one, lest, one by one, we fall.


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