Budget Cuts: Any Winners Here?

Well, I take it that the National Cherry Blossom Parade snaked its way Inside the Beltway Saturday without incident — saved by the last-minute budget deal reached Friday night. And after being kinda absent during the contentious debate over 2011 federal spending levels, Prez O took a victory lap up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial.

Yes, we can.

Or maybe not.

Most of the stories over the weekend were short on details of the spending cuts but long on opining about the winners and losers — Obama, Boehner, Reid, add or delete a name here, and so on. Were there really any winners here?

What we’ve seen play out over the last few weeks is the equivalent of a Sunday morning talk show that never goes off the air. All you have are Washington insiders — in government and the news media — talking to each other. Don’t Chuck Schumer and John McCain ever just get up on Sunday and go to brunch? And if David Gregory is the apologist for the administration and liberals in Congress, shouldn’t he be on MSNBC instead of Meet the Press? Oops. I digress.

This whole fiasco doesn’t strike me as a great moment in our nation’s democracy — or a cause for celebration, unless you were lining up for the Cherry Blossom Parade. The Democratic controlled Congress last year punted before the elections — leaving the playing field to the conservative Republicans and the new boys and girls in town, those from the Tea Party.

So now it’s game on. And as Congress and the administration tackle the 2012 budget and the question of the federal debt limit, we’re going to see how our elected officials fry some really big fish in the skillet — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security among them. And as John Boehner writes in USA Today, this time we’re talking about trillions, not billions. Good luck with that.

And to put the upcoming debate in perspective, here’s an opinion piece in WaPo by Robert Samuelson, “Big government on the brink“:

We in America have created suicidal government; the threatened federal shutdown and stubborn budget deficits are but symptoms. By suicidal, I mean that government has promised more than it can realistically deliver and, as a result, repeatedly disappoints by providing less than people expect or jeopardizing what they already have. But government can’t easily correct its excesses, because Americans depend on it for so much that any effort to change the status arouses a firestorm of opposition that virtually ensures defeat. Government’s very expansion has brought it into disrepute, paralyzed politics and impeded it from acting in the national interest.

Few Americans realize the extent of their dependency. The Census Bureau reports that in 2009 almost half (46.2 percent) of the 300 million Americans received at least one federal benefit: 46.5 million, Social Security; 42.6 million, Medicare; 42.4 million, Medicaid; 36.1 million, food stamps; 3.2 million, veterans’ benefits; 12.4 million, housing subsidies. The census list doesn’t include tax breaks. Counting those, perhaps three-quarters or more of Americans receive some sizable government benefit. For example, about 22 percent of taxpayers benefit from the home mortgage interest deduction and 43 percent from the preferential treatment of employer-provided health insurance, says the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

“Once politics was about only a few things; today, it is about nearly everything,” writes the eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson in a recent collection of essays (“American Politics, Then and Now”). The concept of “vital national interest” is stretched. We deploy government casually to satisfy any mass desire, correct any perceived social shortcoming or remedy any market deficiency. What has abetted this political sprawl, notes Wilson, is the rising influence of “action intellectuals” — professors, pundits, “experts” — who provide respectable rationales for various political agendas.

The consequence is political overload: The system can no longer make choices, especially unpleasant choices, for the good of the nation as a whole. Public opinion is hopelessly muddled. Polls by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago consistently show Americans want more spending for education (74 percent), health care (60 percent), Social Security (57 percent) and, indeed, almost everything. By the same polls, between half and two-thirds of Americans regularly feel their taxes are too high; in 2010, a paltry 2 percent thought them too low. Big budget deficits follow logically; but of course, most Americans want those trimmed, too.

Doesn’t sound like there are going to be many winners here.

Just sayin’.


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