March 28, 2011

Steering the Federal Budget Discussion

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In the United States, we’re used to hearing when the government makes decisions, not watching while they discuss. Not every citizen is present when every choice is proposed, nor when it’s deliberated, nor when it’s voted on. They’re not required to be, because we’re not a direct democracy, and it works well. We trust our representatives to accurately do what we would, because usually there’s a resolution that makes us happy or angry and that’s that.

The federal budget is not like that. If our representatives don’t get their acts together, there won’t just be an inevitable conclusion and happy or unhappy outcome. Instead, if the debate isn’t resolved by April 8, the government will shut down. Last time the government shut down was for six days in 1995; it immediately lost $400 billion in federal funds, suspended Medicare, Social Security and the State Department and delayed government-provided loans to 10,000 low — and medium-income families. It was a big deal then — it will be a big deal in two weeks if it comes to pass.

The disparity between what the Republican Party wants and what the Democratic Party and White House want is huge. The Republican majority in the House passed legislation that would cut $61 billion from 2010 spending levels. Democrat legislators are agreed on at least $10 billion of those cuts, and rumor has it that the White House is working closely with lawmakers to develop a plan offering an extra $20 billion in cuts to Republican leaders. Still, that’s a $31 billion difference to resolve.

Last Tuesday, a meeting between lawmakers from all over the political spectrum devolved into a shouting match. Participants could not agree whether to debate down from $61 billion or up from $10 billion. The situation blew up and politicians stormed out. I don’t think that our tax-payer dollars and votes should be going to a group of adults who throw public tantrums when other people don’t agree with them instead of bartering and politicking their way to a solution.

When you look up “congress” on dictionary.com, the definition reads as follows: “assembly of representatives for the discussion, arrangement or promotion of some matter of common interest.”  Nowhere do we find the words “yell,” “ignore,” or “fight.” I understand that representatives are going to disagree and that sometimes compromise is impossible. That being said, people whose careers are made out of public speech and discussion should understand how to at least be clear with each other about their preferences. Despite their differences, understanding is fundamental before compromise can be reached, and compromise is absolutely necessary. No one wants a government shutdown, but even further than that, no one wants a broken political system. Inability to use the democratic process to achieve compromise is a sad and shameful indication of such a breakdown.

A big difference between the Republican-sponsored, House-passed budget (continuing resolution H.R. 1) and the Democrat preferences is between discretionary and mandatory spending. Discretionary spending is spending that the government can make a choice about annually — it is fluid, and can be distributed to organizations and bureaus whose services are not legally bound or constant. Mandatory spending is spending on services like Social Security, federal medical care and food stamps — programs that are mandated by law to exist and be paid for by the government.

Interestingly, media reports say that Republicans insist on focusing on non-military discretionary spending cuts instead of cuts to mandatory spending. At first, this seemed to me to be an indication of preservation of basic services that perhaps Democrats were ignoring, and I found myself supporting the House plan. However, it soon became clear to me that important programs are categorized as discretionary spending rather than mandatory — things like environmental regulation, education and housing, the FBI and support for organizations like Planned Parenthood. And while the Democrat suggestions have included limitations on medical programs like Medicare and other mandatory spending cut-downs, they are not reductions that are out of order in a tight economy. Many of their concessions are on discretionary spending in the $10 billion already agreed to, and this will probably be the case for the $20 billion in cuts that may be proposed by the White House.

Something that would be helpful in passing the budget plan in a compromising, democratic and reasonable way would be for politicians to stop trying to include purely political agendas on programs that catch a lot of attention and are important for their rivals’ votes. Democrat lawmakers are not going to agree to see Planned Parenthood and the EPA totally fall by the wayside because that entirely compromises their beliefs and abilities to represent their constituents. Federal law prevents Planned Parenthood from spending the government’s dollars on abortions anyway, and yet the Republican Party insists on taking all funding away from them. Is it in spite? The EPA might make mistakes, but it also provides important services to the American people, and it’s a politically unbiased attitude to insist that it continue to function.

These issues could have been hotly debated early on in the budget write-ups, yet continue to be discussed now. But when the talk of political problems is so divisive that it prevents our government even from functioning, the situation has gone too far. The White House and congressional Democrats must propose a reasonable and well thought-out compromise. Republicans must agree to it and refrain from entirely striking services important to many citizens philosophically and practically in a roundabout way. Without a functioning government, there can be no discussion of important issues in the future, and cooperation will further spiral downwards.

I encourage everyone to contact his or her representatives or senators and urge them towards consensus. Without citizens reminding their politicians of how necessary it is that our government continue to run, it’s possible that they simply will not act, and act they must.

Maggie Henry is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry