Federal Budget from the Ground Up
A Commentary by Arnie Alpert
President Obama’s budget proposal, released today, will touch off Washington-centric squabbles over proper levels of federal spending and taxing. Snooze-inducing terms like “continuing resolutions,” “discretionary spending,” and “entitlement spending” will dominate political debates all the way through the presidential caucus/primary season to the 2012 election.
In the rest of the country, people would prefer a straightforward response to the unemployment and foreclosure crises that are prompting talk of states declaring bankruptcy. One answer is staring us in the face: Put cutting the “national security” budget back on the table.
That’s a key step for President Obama and Congress to fulfill their constitutional obligation to “promote the general welfare” - and to protect vital programs, like food and housing assistance, for our most vulnerable neighbors.
People across the country are watching relatives, friends, and coworkers struggle with unemployment and under-employment at levels which make claims of an “economic recovery” laughable. In New Hampshire, homeless shelters that were already full before the economic collapse are seeing increasing numbers of first-time visitors. The average length of a shelter stay continues to rise from 51 days in 2009 to 55 days in 2010 because there simply are not enough decent jobs or apartments with affordable rents.
Nationwide, the number of low-income households who had to pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing went up by 20 percent in the past two years. But instead of recognizing this housing emergency, budget hawks in Washington are letting their obsession with deficits cloud common sense. For example, the House Appropriations Committee is proposing a 17 percent cut in the housing budget. That would mean that hundreds of thousands of poor families whose rent is subsidized with public dollars will lose their homes.
And the President proposes to reduce federal spending by focusing on domestic programs – even though his own budget director acknowledges “discretionary spending not related to security represents just a little more than one-tenth of the entire federal budget.”
That “national security” spending is out of proportion to people’s daily needs. With two ongoing wars funded as special “overseas contingency operations” and a defense budget whose scale has little relationship to the actual threats our country faces, security-related funding takes up roughly half of the appropriations controlled on an annual basis by Congress - the so-called “discretionary budget.”
That amount - $708.3 billion - equals the combined military spending of nearly every other country, many of whom are our allies. Why continue this bloat, especially in the face of continued and growing human needs at home?
Instead, Congress and the President should join forces to put America back to work, even if investments in education and infrastructure cause short-term deficits. Money in the wallets of low income and working class people is the best recipe for raising demand and producing economic growth.
Finally, we need to look at our tax system. Given the fact that most of the benefits from economic growth in recent years has gone to the wealthiest among us, it is reasonable to let the Bush era tax cuts expire for those at the top of the pile. Congress also should give attention to closing corporate tax loopholes, which the President’s deficit commission calls a significant leak in the federal coffers.
The President’s budget director says the budget is “an expression of our values and aspirations.” That’s a good place to start, and a good place to return.
Arnie Alpert is New Hampshire Program Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that works for peace, social justice, and nonviolent change.