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Opinion: Budget-Cutting Delusions

Feb 15, 2011 – 7:15 AM
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Michael Cohen

Michael Cohen Contributor

Give House Republicans credit: They said they were going to cut $100 billion in government spending and they've done it, unveiling a budget this week that would take an ax to a host of social programs.

Yet even this small measure of austerity is ugly; billions cut from education initiatives like Head Start and Title I funding, a 30 percent drop for the Environmental Protection Agency, an end to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Americorps, a $100 million reduction for food inspections and even spending cuts on the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides nutritional assistance to expectant mothers and newborns.

According to U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., this is the price that must be paid; "no matter how popular sounding these programs are, they jeopardize our children's future." So in order to preserve the "future" of America's children, Republicans are content to harm their "present" -- and, considering the lifelong costs of malnutrition at a young age, to threaten their future too, ironically.

None of this should be confused with smart public policy. Cutting government spending at a time of high unemployment and stagnant economic growth couldn't be more fiscally unwise. And considering the reluctance of Democrats to go along with these cuts, the chances they become law are nil. As for the idea that cutting $100 billion of a more than $1 trillion budget is serious deficit reduction -- it's a bit like trying to lose weight by ordering a Big Mac and a Diet Coke.

Republicans seem to have deluded themselves into believing that Americans really wanted them to cut spending. Instead, the GOP is about to find out that while Americans hate government spending in the abstract, they're actually quite fond of it in reality.

According to a recent Pew poll, 49 percent of Americans think deficit reduction is more important than actually helping the economy recover -- but a look inside the numbers highlights voter contradictions.

How do Americans feel about education and public school spending, which are both on the GOP chopping block? Respectively, 62 and 59 percent of Americans want to see more federal resources dedicated to these initiatives. Only 11 and 13 percent want to see reductions. How about Social Security or Medicare, infrastructure, aid to the needy and crime initiatives? Hands off! In fact, the only area where voters would prefer more cuts than increases is that old punching bag foreign aid and unemployment assistance (the latter just got a large bipartisan funding increase).

These poll results reflect what is likely the most glaring dysfunction in modern American politics. The electorate demands fiscal responsibility and then rejects any effort to actually reduce government spending -- and, what's worse, applauds even more irresponsible tax cuts. And instead of pointing out the fundamental contradiction between these positions, for more than four decades Republicans and Democrats have inveighed against the evils of "big government" while at the same time adding to the federal dole.

It is striking that both parties refuse to countenance serious cuts to entitlements like Social Security and Medicare (thankfully) or the defense budget, which combined make up two-thirds of the federal budget. Neither party wants to take those steps because it would upset powerful constituencies. Instead, they propose cuts that fall on the most vulnerable -- and least politically powerful -- Americans, and do nothing to reduce the deficit. Even these steps will likely be too much.

President Barack Obama doesn't get off the hook completely, even if his budget seems to make actual choices between good and bad spending programs. He has called for an ill-advised five-year freeze in discretionary spending at the same time he is proposing more money for high-speed rail and wireless technology infrastructure. Yet the administration seems content to argue that the only real disagreement between Republicans and Democrats is how and what to cut, as opposed to making a more full-throated argument about the importance of government spending (a view he clearly seems to hold).

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With the Republicans' latest budget proposal -- and to a lesser extent Obama's -- both parties seem intent on furthering the charade that Americans need and want a smaller government, without making any real effort to get us there. It's the least of both worlds, combining pandering and ineffectiveness.

But those inclined to engage in typical Washington bashing should look inward. Americans have no one to blame but themselves for this situation. If they continue to remain blissfully unaware of how their own government operates and oblivious to the contradictions in their expectations for it, is it any wonder that politicians treat them like children?
Filed under: Opinion
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