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The Budget Agreement: No Occasion for Back-Patting

Lawmakers are congratulating themselves for averting government shutdown—but the nation’s budget for 2012 is still out of balance.

Budget Tug of War, photo by Joe Philipson

Controversy over the national budget for 2012 inspired an intense game of tug of war in Congress. 

Photo by Joe Philipson.

More than six months into the current fiscal year, lawmakers struck an 11th-hour deal and are congratulating themselves for agreeing to a budget that includes more than $38 billion in spending cuts, touted as the largest annual cut in history.

While it is important that Congress averted a government shutdown that would have closed national parks and museums, shut down construction projects, and left phones ringing unanswered at social security, these spending cuts are no occasion for back-patting. 

Last week’s fight was over a small slice of the budget. This approach fosters the erroneous perception that reducing the deficit and growing jobs can only be achieved by slashing programs that build roads, pay police officers and teachers, ensure the medicine we take is safe and effective, train unemployed workers for new jobs, and provide education assistance for low-income people.

Indeed, after passing the budget, elected officials on both sides of the aisle seemed unified in the belief that spending on programs that benefit Main Street Americans are a big part of the problem.

This approach fosters the erroneous perception that reducing the deficit and growing jobs can only be achieved by slashing important social programs.

Unfortunately, the 2011 budget battle is merely a preview of what may come. Last week, the House released its budget proposal for fiscal year 2012. During a press conference, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan called it a “choice for America’s future.” 

We do have a choice—a choice between increasing opportunities for all or providing for special interests and the wealthy at the expense of low- and moderate-income people. The House budget proposal makes the wrong choice. It not only makes permanent Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, it goes one step further by slashing the already historically low tax rate for those at the top.

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While ensuring the wealthy pay less in taxes, the House budget plan assaults programs that promote opportunity and help more Americans move into the middle class. It cuts workforce development programs at a time when, in spite of recent declines, unemployment is still high and the least skilled workers struggle to find employment or access education and training to become more marketable. It raises the real cost of tuition and college expenses for low-income students by decreasing Pell grant aid. It undoes health care reform. And it goes after programs that help low-income people access health care and put food on the table by block granting Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

This assault on opportunity-promoting and poverty-alleviating programs comes at a time when the gap between rich and poor is widening. According to Census data, the top-earning 20 percent of households received nearly half (49.4 percent) of all household income in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available. The bottom 20 percent, or those living in poverty and earning less than $20,000 per year, received 3.4 percent. The collective amount has increased for the top 20 percent but decreased for the bottom 20 percent.

It's disingenuous to suggest the nation’s budget can be balanced by focusing on domestic, non-defense discretionary programs and leaving tax increases and other revenue raisers off the table.

Given this reality, it is troubling that our elected officials are comfortable taking a hatchet to domestic programs. Two-thirds of the cuts in the proposed House budget come from programs that target low- and moderate-income people, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Huge deficits are unsustainable and no good for the nation’s long-term economic prosperity. But it is disingenuous to suggest that our budget can be balanced by focusing on domestic, non-defense discretionary programs and leaving tax increases and other revenue raisers off the table.

Late last year, the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform released a plan for deficit reduction that called for shared sacrifice and protection of the most vulnerable members of society. Though the plan wasn’t perfect, it did look at both spending and revenue.

President Obama and the Democratic caucus are set to release alternative budget proposals this week. There have been hints that their proposals will take a broader look at revenue and spending, including calling for ending tax breaks for the wealthy and putting a broader swath of government programs on the table for review.

This is a more realistic approach, and at the very least it should be the baseline for national discourse about restoring balance to the nation’s budget.


Alan W. Houseman wrote this article for  YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Alan is the executive director of CLASP, the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington D.C.-based organization that advocates for policy solutions that work for low-income people.

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