McPherson and Rawlings: When Cutting Deficit, Don’t Lose Historic Focus on Education, Research

As the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction works to bridge partisan and policy differences in its narrow time frame, leaders of the nation’s public and private research universities have a concise message for committee members: their job is not about fixing the past; it is about safeguarding our country’s future.

In a limited sense, their mission will be considered accomplished if they produce legislation that reduces deficits by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. But we and the leaders of more than 130 universities have urged the committee to set its sights higher and accomplish two major goals.

- Reach a big and balanced agreement for deficit reduction that stabilizes our national debt primarily by achieving savings in entitlement programs and by reforming the tax code.

- Provide the conditions for long-term economic growth not only through deficit reduction and tax reform but also by making or encouraging investments in areas such as education and research.

As representatives of nearly all of the nation’s public and private research universities, our two associations have never in the past considered it our place to be advocates on the broad issues of spending, deficits and taxation.  But the stakes for our country are too high for us to stand on the sidelines.

We believe that every part of the budget — discretionary spending, mandatory spending and the revenue system — must be on the table for review. The Budget Control Act and other deficit-reduction measures have concentrated almost entirely on discretionary spending, particularly domestic discretionary spending.  As only one-sixth of the federal budget, domestic discretionary spending — which includes national investments in our nation’s future such as education, research, infrastructure, and health programs — is not the primary cause of our rising national debt. And imprudent additional reductions risk undermining our nation’s human capital, infrastructure and technological and scientific needs.

No one needs one of our universities’ economic professors to tell us that a deficit reduction agreement should seriously address a primary source of long-term spending growth: entitlement programs. Defense spending will need to be examined as well.

To be clear, however, the sizable deficit reduction we need cannot be achieved solely through spending cuts. We also need significant tax reform that focuses on economic growth as well as deficit reduction.

In addition, growing our economy over the long term requires targeting expenditures to those areas of the budget that have always fueled job-creating economic activity and will continue to do so. Education, scientific research and innovation will continue to underpin our nation’s economic growth in this era of enhanced global competitiveness.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), Erskine Bowles and a bipartisan majority of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform had it right: a deficit plan, they said, should “cut red tape and unproductive government spending that hinders job creation and growth. At the same time, we must invest in education, infrastructure, and high-value research and development to help our economy grow, keep us globally competitive, and make it easier for businesses to create jobs.”

To see why, you need only to look around your home, your office, your car or any hospital, or watch how our national security apparatus protects the nation.  Everywhere you will see the extraordinary dividends of our nation’s past focus on education and research.

More than half of U.S. economic growth since World War II is a result of technological innovation, much of which is a result of federally funded scientific research. Such groundbreaking research has led to vaccines, lasers, the MRI, Global Positioning Systems, the Internet and even the iPad and Kindle — advances that have grown our economy, improved our health and made our nation stronger and more secure.

At the same time, investments in student aid have made it possible for generations of young Americans to obtain a college education regardless of income.  Congress has already cut federal student aid programs in recent years to shore up the Pell Grant program as well as to reduce deficits. If we want to optimize our nation’s human capital to advance our economy and society, we need to provide opportunities to all, regardless of income, to attain the highest levels of education they can. This is especially true at a time when competing nations — such as China and India — are increasing their investments in both research and education.

Now is the time to act. The super committee has a historic opportunity to craft a balanced proposal that is at once bold, sensible and forward-thinking. On behalf of hundreds of U.S. public and private research universities, we urge the committee and Congress to move past the all-too-frequent partisan contention we have seen to reach a bipartisan compromise to bring the national debt under control and create a pathway for long-term economic growth.

Peter McPherson is president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Hunter Rawlings is president of the Association of American Universities.