By Mark Hillman
It’s a political reality: talking about how to govern is far easier than actually governing.
Government, after all, is a reflection of the governed and nothing requires individual voters or “the people” in general to act responsibly. That observation is not an indictment of the electorate but an acknowledgement that voters are never forced to confront tough choices about government spending.
Consider the federal debt and deficit. The deficit is the annual difference between revenue and spending; debt is the accumulated total of deficits.
Gallup says 84% of Americans believe that it is extremely or very important for Congress and the President to deal with the federal deficit. By a 50% to 16% margin, Americans say the debt limit should be raised “only if Congress can agree ahead of time on measures to reduce the deficit in the future.”
Take those sentiments at face value, and it appears that Congress – Republicans in particular – has a clear mandate to cut spending to balance the budget. Maybe.
In January, Gallup asked for Americans’ opinion on cutting government spending in specific areas. The most popular target for the carving knife was foreign aid — the only expenditure area in which more Americans supported cutting spending than opposed it, 59%-37%.
Cutting funding for arts and sciences ranked second, but just 46% supported those cuts, compared to 52% who opposed. Reducing aid to farmers found support from 44% but opposed by 53%.
Next, Americans rank cuts to homeland security (42%-56%) and national defense (42%-57%). Least popular are cuts to “anti-poverty programs” (39%-55%), Medicare (38%-61%), Social Security (34%-64%) and education (32%-67%).
These numbers alone demonstrate that while balancing the budget is imperative, the path to doing so is a political minefield, demanding vision, determination and strategic messaging.
The most popular cuts are those that affect the fewest Americans directly, illustrating that it’s always easiest to gore someone else’s ox. Foreign aid spending in fiscal year 2010 tallied just $42 billion or 1.2% of the $3.5 trillion budget. Eliminating foreign aid entirely would reduce the 2010 deficit by 3.2%.
Funding for “arts and sciences” is even more paltry. Combined funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment of the Humanities, and the Commission on Fine Arts totals $283 million. Add the National Science Foundation and the total surpasses $8 billion — 0.6% of the deficit.
Farm income stabilization payments total $18 billion for 2010. All other agriculture research, education and loan programs contribute another $7 billion. Eliminate the entire $25 billion and the deficit is reduced by 1.9%.
Homeland security ($49 billion) has potential for limited reductions, but national defense ($760 billion, not including operations in Iraq and Afghanistan) is already well below the historic average for non-wartime spending and at levels many feel are inadequate to maintain the security of a free nation. As President Washington said, the “most effectual means of preserving peace” is “to be prepared for war.”
Eliminating the U. S. Department of Education — while perhaps unpopular — would cut spending by $92 billion with a negligible impact on classrooms. Yet our hypothetical exercise has narrowed the deficit by just 13%.
The remaining $1.1 trillion deficit demands significant reforms to Medicare, Social Security entitlements and to welfare and health care programs that combine for more than $2.2 trillion annually.
Interest on the debt costs $448 billion — projected to surpass $1 trillion annually in just six years.
Think about that. Just three years ago, the deficit had never approached $1 trillion, but if President Obama serves two terms, his own budget office says interest payments alone will surpass $1 trillion by his final year.
Balancing the budget is not an easy task, but it absolutely must be done. Otherwise, our generation will leave our children and grandchildren with mountains of debt, a stagnant economy, and a worthless dollar — all because we selfishly lived beyond our means and stuck them with the bill.
Mark Hillman served as Colorado senate majority leader and state treasurer. To read more or comment, go to www.MarkHillman.com.