Looking Beyond the Current Budget Agreement

By Glen Gersmehl

One can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief that in late December, Congress negotiated its way out of yet another painful budget logjam and managed to pass a tax and spending plan.

We’ve had three years of gridlock – remember the fiscal cliff, debt limit standoff, sequester, government shutdown, threat of default. Each impaired needed work on other priorities, damaged social programs, and put at risk the global as well as the U.S. economy.  To be able to explore where things might go differently this time and how to get there, let’s take a quick look at the December budget compromise.

On the positive side:  It doesn’t carelessly cut Social Security, Medicare, etc.  It will last far longer than previous agreements – two years – enabling Congress to get to work on other priorities.  It puts limits on budget areas that have grown rapidly, like defense.  Many programs were spared new sequester cuts that would have been triggered this month.

On the negative side:  The budget deal does not close any of the gaping corporate tax loopholes, or demand even the most clearly needed budget cuts.  It doesn’t move us toward tax fairness. (Why couldn’t the wealthy pay what they did in, say, the Eisenhower administration?)

Urgent Priorities Ignored

This means that we are denied the resources needed to address numerous urgent priorities, like putting people back to work; expanding renewable energy; moving beyond rhetoric to taking serious steps on climate change; improving our schools to better prepare young people for tomorrow’s jobs; rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure; and repairing and strengthening instead of further cutting the safety net.

Yet the agreement is silent on such priorities. Moreover, it allowed unemployment benefits to expire for over a million long-term unemployed workers – that’s a number expected to grow to five million by the end of 2014.  It leaves the sequester cuts largely in place, consigning safety net programs to reduced levels and leaving them vulnerable to further cuts.

In a nutshell, the budget agreement ducks most of the hard questions.  It is more a cease-fire than a solution to our budget dilemmas.  So what might a smart budget look like?

A Smart Budget Begins by Eliminating Wasteful and Unnecessary Defense Programs and Requests

The solution is not saving a mere $4 billion a year (as in the House budget) by cutting food stamps – among the most cost-effective programs to help low-income children do better in school and help their parents focus on jobs and improving their lives.

Rather, we could have over 100 billion dollars a year to allocate.  How?  There are huge defense  programs that are simply unneeded in the new global security environment.  Others are enormously wasteful.  A few notable programs are larger than even what the Pentagon requested.  This does not point to thoughtful decision-making by Congress.  Rather it is evidence of the huge influence of defense contractor lobbying.

To make cuts in defense is not to endanger our country.  They could make us safer and stronger. Nor would they “dishonor” our service members.  The best way to honor them is by not sending them to fight in Libya or Syria or Iran. Let’s face it,  the root of our budget dilemma lies in decisions to spend several trillion dollars on Middle East wars and then hundreds of billions of dollars attempting to rebuild the mess they caused.

For a small fraction of that, we could expand our efforts on our own and working with other countries to alleviate the main causes of wars, like poverty, unemployment, high food prices, and corruption that make it easier for terrorists to recruit followers and build support.

It’s time for a serious New Year’s resolution:   To discuss this among our friends and in citizen groups and faith communities to which we belong.  And to take the next step and urge our elected officials to focus on our nation’s real priorities and on where we can find the resources to pay for them.  That is what our members of Congress most need to hear.  It also suggests some New Year’s resolutions that they should be making.Φ

For years, Glen Gersmehl has worked for citizen groups focused on issues like these, and in the process has been asked to testify or consult with over 20 legislative committees and government agencies. He currently directs Lutheran Peace Fellowship.

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