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Real budget battle to come

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 17, 2011 7:20 AM

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Democrats and Republicans made their bed last October, and now they are lying in it. While the participants have changed, the budget impasse the 111th Congress created is worse than ever.

The cuts proposed by the GOP-led House Appropriations Committee are more about winning a political battle than they are about effecting real change to the budget. Fundamentally, cuts in discretionary spending would do little to combat America’s budget problem, and run the risk of bleeding vital programs across America and here in Iowa. As non-security discretionary spending is a small portion of U.S. budget, getting serious about budget woes means taking a hard look at the big-ticket items, including entitlements and defense spending.

Congress is now suffering the consequences of the irresponsible budget negotiations of the previous fiscal year. Congress failed to agree on a budget for fiscal 2011, instead voting to continue funding at 2010 levels in a “continuing resolution”.

Due to the nature of a continuing resolution, Congress will only be able to make budgetary changes in discretionary spending, so meaningful cuts to the largest parts of the federal budget such as entitlements and most defense spending are off the table. The continuing resolution was adopted because of the failure to enact an official budget, which Congress is Constitutionally required to do.

On March 4th, the continuing resolution will no longer fund the government; the House committee’s proposal, hotly contested by Democrats, would fill in the rest of fiscal 2011 with some major changes.

Members on both sides of the aisle are guilty of stymieing responsible budget efforts.

“President Obama is forced to work with a Republican-controlled House this year,” said Cary Covington, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “Both sides will be looking to score political points.” Any changes at the larger part of the budget, nondiscretionary spending, would require changes to the underlying legislation funding programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — something nearly impossible with the sprouting of the 2012 campaign season.

“The first person to impose entitlement reforms is going to get in trouble,” Professor Covington said. Obama, he said, will try to get the GOP to make the first move on cutting entitlements before adopting the fiscal 2012 budget.

The political environment for this stage of the resolution is far worse than it was last October, so a smoothly negotiated compromise seems unlikely.

Accordingly, many of the cuts proposed seem more like political statements than legitimate appropriation solutions. The House Republicans are aiming to cut $100 billion from Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2011, which complies with a promise the party made in its “Pledge to America” last election season.

The actual cuts will total $61 billion, and all of the cuts will come from non-security discretionary spending, an area that comprises less than 15 percent of the federal government’s budget.

Adherence to this goal is a result of pressure from fiscal hawks within the Republican Party, especially from mushrooming small government zeitgeist.

But instead of across-the-board austerity, the principal areas targeted by the proposal are programs which have traditionally been unpopular with Republicans. One of the areas that would take the largest hit is environmental protection and regulation. The proposal would cut $1.6 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, including cutting $899 billion from the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program. This program has assisted in developing energy policy in several areas of Iowa, including providing grants for local energy projects such as a wind turbine at a school in Spirit Lake, Iowa.

Public radio and broadcasting are also in the cross hairs. A statement from Daniel Miller, the Iowa Public Television executive director, released Feb. 12 declared that the broadcast service’s mission would be “crippled” by elimination of federal funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; this is particularly the case if Iowa follows Virginia’s (attempted) lead and proposes eliminating state funding for public radio and television.

Solving the deficit problem is an important goal. The current level of U.S. debt is unsustainable, but enacting a short-term budget fix should not come at the expense of derailing long-term priorities such as environmental protection. Serious deficit and debt fixes must be met with a willingness to abandon party touchstones, not an acceptance of some pet projects and uprooting of those across the ideological divide.

More importantly, the U.S. House’s proposal would not truly solve the nation’s fiscal troubles. The budget moves that need to be made to fix America’s problem cannot be made with the minor, mostly symbolic changes to discretionary spending that are possible immediately. Full-scale appropriations overhaul must involve a serious analysis of government programs to decide which are vital long-term investments and which are unnecessary — but this partisan sniping is nothing more than an opening skirmish.

The big battle over nondiscretionary and defense spending is still to come.


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