“Budgets,” Jim Wallis reminds us, “are always moral documents.”
The first test of that morality, explains the theologian who chairs the Global Agenda Council on Faith for the World Economic Forum, is how those with the least power, the fewest political connections and the greatest economic challenges fare. “Our budget should not be balanced on the backs of the poor,” says Wallis. “Cuts should not come from the services and programs that people rely on now more than ever. The reality is that we have a lot of wasteful spending in our federal budget, but most of it does not come from things that help the most vulnerable people in our society.”
The president’s approach is far less draconian than was proposed last fall by the co-chairs of his deficit commission, who would have had the president consider processes of privatizing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Obama is not proposing to raise the retirement age or to cut the benefits available to those who reach it. At the same time, he proposes new education spending and some needed investments in high-speed rail ($53 billion over the next six years), building a nationwide wireless network ($15.7 billion) and establishing a national infrastructure bank ($50 billion) that would encourage investment in needed projects to create jobs.
All that’s got House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, sputtering about how the president “is abdicating leadership on that point.”
The president counters: “I’ve called for a freeze on annual domestic spending over the next five years. This freeze would cut the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, bringing this kind of spending—domestic discretionary spending— to its lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was President.”
But the way to a moral budget is not to try to strike some sort of balance between the Ayn Rand–derived fantasies of Paul Ryan and the reality that millions of American families rely on programs paid for by that “domestic discretionary spending” to survive.
The way to a moral budget is to assure that the most vulnerable Americans are protected. At the very least, it should place more serious demands of the wealthy and Pentagon contractors than on low-income and working-class households. The Progressive Chance Campaign Committee gets to the heart of the matter when it suggests: “Every proposed cut to necessary programs like Pell Grants and heating for low-income seniors needs to be judged in the context of the unnecessary tax cuts for Wall Street millionaires that passed at the end of last year.”
By that measure, the Obama budget—with its emphasis on domestic spending cuts that would would trim or terminate more than 200 federal programs in the coming year—fails some serious moral tests.
Among other things, the president’s proposed budget would:
• Cut $2.5 billion in heating assistance for low-income people.
• Cut $350 million from Community Development Block Grants.
• Save $100 billion over ten years by eliminating Pell Grants for needy students who want to take summer classes in order to finish their degrees sooner while allowing interest on graduate school loans to begin building up while students are still in school, meaning that the costs of getting an education will rise dramatically.
• Undermine an essential environmental initiative by cutting a quarter of the funding for the multi-state Great Lakes clean-up project. This project is especially important to so-called “rust-belt” cities where unaddressed pollution problems invariably poses the most serious health and safety threats to low-income and working-class neighborhoods
The proposed cuts, coming just weeks after the president worked with Republican Congressional leaders to maintain Bush-era tax cuts for billionaires and to expand estate-tax exemptions for millionaires, drew a rebuke from Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over labor, health and education programs.
Referring to proposed cuts that harm low-income Americans, Harkin said, “There can be pain, but I want to make sure it’s not just on them. I want to make sure there’s Wall Street pain, there’s Pentagon pain, that there’s wealthy pain.”
There will be specific opposition to the $2.5 billion hit Obama proposes for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey, a top House Democrat, says the cut would “have a devastating effect on millions of American families.” Vermont Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy and Congressman Peter Welch declared that: “the last thing we should be doing is making it harder for the most vulnerable people in this country to stay warm in the winter.”
But it is perhaps even more unsettling to see a move to slash the far-reaching antipoverty programming that is maintained with the help of Community Development Block Grant funding. “The question is why? Why pick on this program?” asks David Bradley, director of the National Community Action Foundation, who warns: “Once the Obama administration throws a poverty program in the water, it starts a feeding frenzy.”
By doing that, Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the Obama administration is letting Republicans like Ryan set far too much of the agenda.
“His people aren’t giving us a very wise set of choices. They’re cotton-balling rather than hard-balling,” explained Kaptur, who said of Obama: “He keeps waiting for Congress to save him. He ought to save himself.”
So what is available in the way of wise choices for balancing the budget?
Even conservatives such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul say that it makes sense to look at the military budget. The Obama budget includes recommendations for a set of Department of Defense spending reductions that could reach $78 billion reduction by 2015. That sounds good. But the actual 2012 budget request for the Pentagon is for more than $550 billion—in inflation-adjusted dollars, experts say that’s closer to an increase of as much as 5 percent over what the Department of Defense was spent last year.
As Lawrence Korb, the former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration who now serves as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, notes (writing with CAP’s Laura Conley): “In inflation-adjusted dollars, this figure is higher than at any time during the Bush years or during the Cold War.”
Instead of the spike in Pentagon spending, Jim Wallis argues that, to meet the moral test of budgeting, it’s “time to cut needless military spending. The Pentagon currently takes up more than half of our country’s discretionary spending. This does not include the billions spent on other military related expenditures or most of our spending on homeland security…. Reps. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) and Ron Paul (R-Texas) came up with a plan that they say would leave our country just as safe but save us $960 billion by 2020! Even with these cuts, we would still be by far the world’s most dominant military. When you list the countries in the world by order of their military expenditures, the United States tops the list and spends more than the next 13 countries combined.”