Tough Cuts -- Tough Choices
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I asked my secretary to find the time to look
back through last year's appointments calendar and to give me a summary
of the people who came to visit.
In 1988, my calendar showed appointments with:
ranchers, farmers, business people, homebuilders and homemakers, lawyers,
lobbyists, minority leaders, American Indians, manufacturers, railroad
workers, shipping interests, labor unions, newspaper publishers, broadcasters,
charitable organizations, educators, university administrators, trade delegations,
contractors, bankers, high school students from Tucson, and a delegation
from the Republic of Palau.
With rare exception, representatives of all of
these varied groups came to talk to me about legislation. And most of that
legislation they came to talk to me about involved money.
It is the oldest whipsaw, and it is faced daily
by every Member of Congress: the pressure to balance the budget and reduce
spending is forever countered by pressure to increase spending, or to create
new spending to help people at home. Frequently, the push from both sides
comes from the same place.
I've rambled a bit here and I have a feeling I
may have almost gone a complete circle. But, having stated the problem
and tried to offer a brief outline of how it is that we got here, let me
offer a look at some answers.
Two plans often looked to for a way out of this
mess are the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law and a Constitutional Amendment requiring
a balanced budget. Both contain flaws which seriously weaken their effectiveness.
Gramm-Rudman-Hollings: This is already
on the books and has been in effect for four years now. Simply stated,
it is a law which mandates that Congress meet spending limits
by a certain date each year, or all spending will be cut automatically.
I don't object to the goal of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, but I do take issue
with the whole mechanism because I don't think it is working. By using
fancy bookkeeping, increased spending can be disguised as spending cuts.
The law is a simple answer for a complicated problem. It isn't doing the
job it was supposed to do.
A Constitutional Amendment to balance the budget is an idea with strong
support in some quarters, but it, too, is probably more illusion than solution.
Any such amendment would need an emergency clause to cover spending, say
in wartime, or to accommodate some major disaster. How do we define emergency?
By defining it too broadly, we have defeated the purpose of the amendment;
by defining it too narrowly, we might place the nation in peril.
Okay, Udall, what now?
First, Congress doesn't need new laws or Constitutional
Amendments to cut spending or to balance the budget. It already has the
authority, and shouldn't sidestep its job in favor of gimmicks which sound
as if they offer painless ways to get the job done.
Second, we need to recognize that in order to
balance the budget, we will all have to do more on less. The task of Congress
is to make the tough choices between these cuts, and then insure that we
are getting the biggest bang for our buck when hard-earned tax dollars
go to work in our state and local communities.
The Budget Dollars
Yes, you're right. The figures do add
up to 102% Offsetting receipts paid to the government bring this figure
Nearly half of the budget, 42 percent, goes to
entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and retirement
programs. Some 26 percent goes to defense. Deduct 15 percent just for interest
payments. That leaves only 19 percent for everything else -- from AIDS
research to cleaning up oil spills, the protection of our borders, the
budgets for the Coast Guard, FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency, building
highways, helping our schools and colleges, and all the rest.
That latter category is what the government calls
discretionary spending, and while our outlays for programs like Social
Security and defense have gone up, our discretionary spending has actually
declined by 18 percent over the past eight years.
Spending on the environment is down by 40 percent.
Funds for housing have been cut by nearly 30 percent. Education is off
by 20 pecent. Community development has been cut by 66 percent and transportation
spending has been trimmed by 16 percent.
These reductions are ironic given the tenor of
the campaign just past. Both candidates spent a great deal of time and
money intimating that as a country we were not doing nearly enough to fight
the problems which confront us. Proposals flew fast and furious: on illiteracy,
the homeless, drug abuse, global warming, acid rain, and education. Apparently,
the problems of this country do not wear political labels.
I don't want to leave you with the impression
that our budget problems are intractable, because I don't think they are.
The solutions, however, do demand difficult choices. All of us must expect
to bear some of the burden if we are to cage this monster.
I do value your advice, and I want your help.
sending along a ballot for you to express your
on the federal budget and the deficit. My list
possible budget cuts is hardly exhaustive, but
represent many of the options most often debated
in Congress. Please take the time to complete
mail it back to my office. In the next several
we'll tabulate the results and let you know what
Second Congressional District thinks.
Our democracy is nearly always cranky and sometimes
slow and frustrating. The school of thought to which I belong maintains
that the Founding Fathers made it deliberately so, forcing long and calculated
thought before any significant changes are made. But the system does work.
More importantly, it belongs to you.