Precious Peanuts

Congress should be tackling unsustainable entitlements, not decimating insignificant discretionary spending

The cuts are finally arriving. Unfortunately they are the wrong ones.

Last Thursday, hundreds of students rallied outside of an Institute of Politics JFK Forum event featuring House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, protesting the pending termination of federal funding for AmeriCorps and other public service programs. The move is part of $61 billion in proposed "dramatic" cuts to federal spending passed by House Republicans.

AmeriCorps is a valuable program. It provides grants on a competitive basis that allow private charities to recruit corps members to mobilize unpaid volunteers in a variety of worthwhile initiatives like Teach for America and Habitat for Humanity.

Most importantly, AmeriCorps reduces the need for more government intervention in solving America’s most intractable problems. It is, despite government facilitation, private sector-based and free market-driven.  Nearly every federal dollar is matched privately. Republicans are making a shortsighted mistake in believing they are saving money by killing a program whose elimination will only push more Americans onto the dole.

I suspect, however, that many of the protesters failed to recognize the perilous context of the proposed cuts. That much was implied by rally organizer Samuel B. Novey ’11, who declared, “The budget cuts are an attack on our classmates and the work that they do.”

Though ideologically tinged, the cuts are primarily a misguided attack on the fiscal disaster America is daily sliding toward. Finally, thanks to the rambunctious warnings of the Tea Party, Congress has turned its sights toward the ballooning debt. These cuts are the result of freshmen Republicans clamoring to fulfill their party’s promise to cut spending by $100 billion in its “Pledge to America,” not to cut AmeriCorps.

The problem is that non-defense discretionary spending—where most of the cuts are occurring— comprises only 15 percent of the budget. Alan K. Simpson,  the co-chairman of President Barack H. Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, or the “debt commission,” accurately called the proposed cuts “peanuts.” The meat of the coming deficit tsunami lies in entitlements, not in AmeriCorps or in foreign aid. Discretionary spending needs to be trimmed, but not to this counterproductive extent. What we truly need is entitlement, defense, and tax reform.

The debt commission, produced a list of sensible proposals, like raising Social Security’s retirement age, increasing Medicare premiums and co-payments, means testing Medicare, and eliminating tax deductions and loopholes while decreasing rates. Obama disappointingly failed to include any in his gimmick-packed proposed budget. House Speaker John Boehner has promised the coming Republican budget will address the “entitlement problem.” Let’s hope so.

Critics have pilloried the proposed cuts, which would end funding of Planned Parenthood and trim the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 13 percent, as ideological warfare—a.k.a. politics—disguised as fiscal reform. Naturally politicians support cutting programs they think undesirable, but the painful cuts are also the result of a paradoxical electoral mandate to cut spending by a population that disapproves of cutting the bulk of federal spending: entitlements.

The truth is that if we do not address entitlements there will soon be no money left to fund anyone’s pet projects. Neither will we be able to pay for the military, national parks, the interstate highway system, food safety, or National Aeronautics and Space Administration. If we don’t act by 2020 Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on the debt will consume 92 percent of federal revenue, and it only gets worse from there.

Democracy and the welfare state often do not mix well, but here’s hoping Americans and their representatives muster the courage to face reality and tackle entitlements soon. Until then, politicians elected on promises to restore fiscal responsibility who also desire reelection will continue to treat entitlements as a third rail and futilely hone in on precious peanuts like AmeriCorps.

Wyatt N. Troia '14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Pennypacker Hall.

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