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Americans like the bulk of the programs that actually make up government. They have been told repeatedly that we can eliminate the waste, fraud and abuse, and that deficits will melt away without anybody except deadbeats feeling any pain. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), expressing support for an initiative by his colleague Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to cut $500 billion from the budget, said recently, “I could give you $350 billion worth of cuts tomorrow that nobody would miss,” adding that those who doubted it were “uninformed.”
Here is the reality. Barely 12 cents on every federal dollar spent is in the nonsecurity discretionary budget. Just less than 24 cents on each dollar goes to defense. Six and a half cents goes to interest on the debt. Almost 41 cents on every budget dollar goes to the big three social insurance programs: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And the remaining 16 cents are for “other” mandatory programs, including things such as veterans’ benefits and farm subsidies.
It is the first 12 cents that would be subject, under the House Republican plan, to cuts of up to 30 percent across the board starting next month, with many popular agencies and programs eliminated or decimated virtually on the spot, with little regard for investments in the future or basic safety nets for people in need at a time of economic turmoil. Defense gets barely a scratch. The rest of the budget is largely unscathed. When voters see what is being cut, I suspect many will say, “That’s not what we meant!”
Most “informed” observers, including Coburn, who cast a courageous vote in favor of the president’s debt commission plan, understand that we will not make serious progress on the debt without focusing on the big-ticket items and on revenues; most, other than Coburn and his colleagues, understand that the overfocus on the 12 cents could leave the U.S. hollowed out, damaging education, infrastructure, science, health and basic research, among other things, and leaving us with a malnourished and unprepared workforce in the future.
My greatest disappointment in the president’s State of the Union message was his failure to embrace at least the larger structure of his own debt commission plan and demand that Congress put it into legislative language and begin debate on its components. It would have been wise substantively and brilliant politically, putting his adversaries on the defensive.
His budget at least makes some smart priority choices, calling for an infrastructure bank and redirecting some spending toward investment in the future. But it still avoids the real, tough choices. Perhaps he can redeem the lost opportunity by seizing the initiative — starting with a Ross Perot-type television address, with hand-made charts, to educate the “uninformed” among us about what the federal government actually does with each tax dollar, and what it would take to get us out of the ditch.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.