The deficit and the Pinocchio Test
03/03/2011 - 08:07
James Besser

 With the federal budget Topic Number One on Capitol Hill and the prospects for serious cuts to critical programs growing by the day as a Tea Party-driven House Republican caucus flexes its muscles, today's Washington Post Fact Checker column offers a useful reality check.

Most Americans, polls show, want big cuts in federal spending – but don't have a clue what's really in the budget, fact-checker-in-chief Glenn Kessler reports.

An example: polls show that Americans believe foreign aid is about 27 percent of the overall budget (that includes Israel's $3 billion-plus in assistance, by the way). In fact, it's about 1 percent.

“[C]compared to other wealthy countries, the United States is an absolute miser on foreign aid,” he writes. “Nevertheless, House Republicans have targeted foreign aid for major cuts this year, with lawmakers even eliminating all funding for the U.S. Institute of Peace, which helps resolve bloody conflicts overseas. (One analyst has noted that the USIP's entire annual budget is equal to the cost of deploying one infantry platoon -- that's about 30 to 40 people -- to Afghanistan for a year.)”

Voters eager for huge cuts wouldn't be so eager if they realized that more than 40 percent of the federal budget “is spent on social insurance, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” a proportion that's soared in recent decades and will soar some more as the Baby Boom generation heads to the nursing homes.

Another 28 percent goes to defense; “domestic discretionary spending,” which includes all those education, social welfare and environmental programs that will undoubtedly be the first to get cut, constitute only about 12 percent.

Both parties are playing games here; they blithely talk about cutting discretionary spending as a budget cure-all, but understandably don't mention entitlement reform, the only way to rein in those “social insurance” costs.

And the reason they don't mention it is because voters will howl if their benefits are cut.

“That's where the money is,” Kessler writes. “Politicians should be honest about the real sacrifices that will be needed, by all Americans, to deal with the looming sacrifices necessary to bring down budget deficits. Cutting development aid in Africa really will not make much of a difference.”

Or aid to Israel, for that matter.

Most major Jewish groups that focus on the domestic scene are gearing up to fight big cuts to programs that serve the nation's most vulnerable citizens, including the growing number of Jewish poor.

And because many big donors love them, just about every Jewish group in the fight except for the National Council of Jewish Women, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Jewish Funds for Justice is scared witless about opposing the tax cuts that have helped dig our current deficit hole.

It seems to me that they, too, could use a dose of truth; without significant defense cuts and potentially painful (and political costly) entitlement reform, the pressure will grow to cut the programs that serve those with the least political power – cuts that, in the end, will do little to curb the deficit, especially in an era of anti-tax extremism.

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