Undoing Bush's Budget Priorities
March 06, 2007
Deborah Weinstein is the executive director of the Coalition On Human Needs.
A budget concretely expresses priorities through its choices. In the budget submitted by President Bush in early February, reducing the taxes of the wealthiest Americans is such a high priority that it is paid for in part by billions of dollars in cuts to domestic programs, with the rest covered by borrowed money. The tax breaks enacted since 2001 will be worth $73 billion to millionaires in 2012, providing them with an average of $162,000 each in that year. In that same year, the President would cut domestic programs such as education, housing, nutrition, public health, Head Start, job training, environmental protection and much more by $34 billion. And that’s not all—the budget shrinks the federal role in providing medical care to the poor by $60 billion over 10 years. It would reverse the progress made in insuring children by freezing funds for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and eliminate food stamps for 300,000 people in low-income working families.
These priorities are utterly and generously misguided. They follow upon six years of beneficence to the wealthy and erosion of services for most everyone else. Today, 150,000 fewer children receive child care subsidies than did in 2000; 150,000 fewer households get help to keep rent affordable than did in 2004. Food stamps have not been adjusted for inflation, and so are worth only $1 per person per meal.
Congress should not miss the opportunity to turn these priorities around in the budget resolution it will hammer out by April 15. The House and Senate Budget Committees are at work right now, with the House Budget Committee’s version expected out the week of March 12. While the budget resolution does not provide detailed program-by-program allocations, it can either allow or restrict progress towards meeting the nation’s needs.
In particular, the budget resolution sets a total amount for all annually appropriated programs, both domestic and military/international. Out of about $1 trillion in annual appropriations, the president’s budget allocates $392 billion to domestic programs. The Coalition on Human Needs, working with labor, faith-based groups, service providers, policy experts and other advocates in the Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities (ECAP), has been urging Congress to raise the total for domestic appropriations to $450 billion. Where does that figure come from? It starts with the funding levels in 2005 (before significant cuts made in 2006), is adjusted for inflation and population growth and is then raised a few percentage points to address unmet needs. It is not a recklessly large figure. In fact, the difference between $450 billion and the president’s proposal is nearly made up by the 2008 cost of the Bush tax cuts for millionaires alone—$55 billion.
The amount in the budget resolution for appropriations is very important. After the resolution is passed, that total is divided up among all the appropriations subcommittees. At that point, it’s a zero sum game. While it is always possible to find more money even late in the appropriations process if there is broad support in Congress, it is a lot easier to get basic priorities right if the number at the outset is adequate.
Congress’ budget resolution also needs to leave enough room for the programs that don’t get annual appropriations—entitlements like Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, child care and child support enforcement. The new Congress has made a commitment to pay for any increases in entitlements or tax cuts—either through reducing spending in entitlements or by increasing revenues. The budget resolution does not get into the details of how such increases would be paid for, but it can incorporate assumptions to pay for an improvement in the Food Stamp Program, for example, either by reducing tax cuts or by finding savings in another program.
To put first things first, Congress must leave room for adequate funding of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which helps states provide health insurance for children in families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid, but too low to afford insurance on their own. SCHIP is a wonderful success story, providing insurance for 6 million children. In recent years, when the number of uninsured adults was climbing dramatically, the number of uninsured children dropped, despite the fact that fewer children were being covered by their parents’ employers. SCHIP and Medicaid are responsible. But because SCHIP has been flat-funded, states are now facing a shortfall of $13.4 billion over the next five years. If nothing is done, by 2012 SCHIP would cover 2.7 million fewer children and pregnant women than are served today. Conveniently, Congress can pay to erase the shortfall just by stopping a couple of tax cuts that were enacted in 2001 but have not yet fully kicked in.
Establishing the right priorities means more than just preventing nasty cuts. SCHIP should be expanded to cover all uninsured children. Food stamps should reach more needy people with more adequate benefits. Earlier cuts in funding to enforce child support orders should be reversed, so children can receive what they are owed. Congress’ budget resolution will be a bitter disappointment if it does not make life better for more people than are now being served.
This Congress can make the choices to satisfy, not disappoint. It can stop squandering resources on tax cuts, special interest spending and unnecessary military expenditures, and invest in meeting human need.