Public Programs Suffer Under New Budget

George Berry

Thanks to an extension of the Bush tax cuts, extraordinary levels of military spending, slow economic growth and exploding healthcare costs, our projected deficit for 2011 stands at a staggering $1.6 trillion. Republicans were voted into office last fall on a platform of “restoring fiscal sanity,” and the Obama administration has been promising to make good on guarantees to put the country on a sustainable path. Yet both the White House’s recently released 2011 budget and the Republican budget passed in the House offer no hint of how this sanity will be achieved. Instead, there are extremely selective spending cuts which tend to penalize small and extremely useful programs. These cuts create extraordinary harm while saving relatively little money. Even with what the President calls “common sense” cuts, the Congressional Budget Office projects $600-plus billion in deficits for most of the next decade.

In a sane fiscal world, deficit reduction would be a conversation about income and spending. This seems almost too obvious to state, but the result of the 2010 election has pushed House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s analysis that “the problem is spending.” This makes raising revenue a decidedly left-wing position. In Noam Chomsky’s words, April 15 has become a day when an “alien entity” — our government — steals “our hard-earned money from us.” The suggestion that our government sometimes enacts programs that are in our interests is not permissible.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that our fiscal world is sane. Amid vague agreements to deal with the tax code and entitlement spending (and perhaps defense) in the future, we have two competing budget proposals that ignore the question of government income, while leaving the largest programs untouched. The result is an administration budget that makes politically safe decisions, and a Republican one that makes decisions along ideological lines.

The Obama budget, according to the Office of Management and Budget, terminates or reduces 140 programs for a savings of $60 billion this year. Among program reductions are a quarter billion dollars cut from technical education grants, a $1 billion cut from the EPA’s clean-water funds and $2.5 billion cut from a program that provides low-income people with means to heat their houses. Programs for protecting wildlife in the Great Lakes, providing housing for the disabled, and funding grants for community development all saw reductions in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Pell Grants, which help low-income children attend college, were cut by a shade over $9 billion. While there were plenty of sensible decisions — reducing fossil fuel development and needless military programs — I can’t imagine a legitimate argument for cutting heating for low-income families or financial assistance for college students. Moreover, the Great Lakes have been decimated by pollution, and a few hundred million dollars to repair some of the damage does not seem like an unwise investment. This kind of penny-pinching tends to be ignorant in the long run, especially when we factor in long-term costs associated with a less educated population or a more polluted environment.

The Republicans have gone further, and with much fanfare. They passed a bill in the House cutting another $61 billion. They threaten to shut down the government if the Senate does not pass this savings bill, which amounts to 3.8 percent of this year’s deficit. Unlike the Obama budget, which makes somewhat less controversial cuts, the Republicans seem to have gone down the list of nearly all programs they disagree with.

The Republicans propose to eliminate three-quarters of a billion dollars from Women, Infants and Children, which provides food for disadvantaged women and children. Amtrak subsidies would be cut, $900 million would be taken out of funding the healthcare law and the National Endowment for the Arts would lose $20.6 million per year. The list goes on: PBS and Planned Parenthood would suffer in the hundreds of millions. $12.5 million would be cut from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These are all high-use, low-cost programs, some of them vital (like WIC for low-income mothers). This is a clear attempt to punish public programs rather than to transition the economy to a more sustainable path — and these enemies seem to be primarily women, the poor and the middle class. When asked about the hundreds of thousands of jobs expected to be lost as a result of this proposal, Speaker of the House John Boehner said, “so be it.”

Even though the Republicans are clearly the “bad guys” here, both proposals have managed to avoid beginning the conversation about how we’re actually going to rein in our deficits to two to three percent of GDP. I don’t mean to suggest that there is a painless way to do it — it’s going to involve rethinking our foreign policy, tax structure and entitlement programs — but the sooner we get started, the easier it will be. The principle of kicking the can will only lead to crisis, maximize harm rather than minimizing it, and leave all of us worse off.