Thingish Things

Focus, Focus, Focus

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Mar• 21•11

Congress’s vote this month to defund public broadcasting went relatively unnoticed — there is too much else happening in the world  —  but for Republicans seeking to significantly pare federal spending, it’s worth taking a hard look at the vote because it could be indicative of a large strategic mistake the GOP is making.

There are plenty of arguments against public funding of television and radio. But the savings from defunding public broadcasting are minuscule in the large scheme of things, so is it worth the fight right now? Aren’t there bigger things over which the GOP should be using its political capital?

One of the points Democrats are making, and making well, is that Republicans are exploiting the fiscal crisis to settle old scores, to pick off pet liberal programs one by one for ideological reasons. And to a certain extent Republicans are.

Conservative Republicans believe that a government that acts least acts best. They ultimately think that government should perform only essential functions that people cannot provide themselves. But which services today are truly “essential”? The postal service may not be at some point in the future, for example, while the National Science Foundation, which administers the Internet, may have become so.

(My brother Gerry quips that there is a simple way to determine this: When radio announcers next inform government employees in a weather emergency that “government offices are closed today, except for those providing essential services,” the rest should just stay closed. The question has been answered. But in reality it’s far more complicated than that, although my brother’s clarity gave me a good laugh.)

There has never been a better opportunity in our lifetimes to debate the question of what is essential in government and what is not, and to fight to cut the latter. But maybe, despite how indescribably irresistible the temptation to engage in this debate may be, Republicans should go light on it for now.

Each of these small fights inflicts a cut. And there are thousands of fights over discretionary programs at the federal, state, and local level in which Republicans might engage, none of which will add up to more than a small hill of beans in the overall deficit fight.

If Republicans do battle over every non-essential program between now and November 2012, they may be bled dry without having accomplished very much.  The logical investment of their political capital should be on where the biggest problems lie – and where the greatest opportunities for savings are — Social Security and Medicare.

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) is expected to unveil a budget plan in the coming days that directly addresses those programs, which make up a full 43% of federal spending.  He is expected to make big, brave asks of the American public, presumably including extending the retirement age. I think Americans will be willing to make those sacrifices at the end of the day because they know they need to — more than they think they need to eliminate a music class or a bus route.

Republicans have only so much license to reshape government in the next two years.  They should use it wisely.  Otherwise we will be talking more about Big Bird in October ’12 than big ideas and accomplishments.


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One Comment

  1. Your Friend says:

    Are you still having your Social Security withholdings taken out of your pay check every week? I know I am. The fact is that because of those withholdings, Social Security is fully funded (unlike all of those pensions you complain about, which are not as under-funded as you and your brethren keep insisting) and it will remain fully funded for the next 30+ years. Can you explain why we need to cut something that 90% of Americans approve of even though it’s not running a deficit? I appreciate the fact that Paul Ryan is opening this discussion again, but it will never go anywhere because it’s the most toxic issue in American politics.

    Now, on to the questions that really matter. Why did you make no mention of cutting the military? And where did you get this chart, See the link below for the actual budget, which is a fascinating document. Here are some of the real numbers. DoD is $707B, but this doesn’t include Homeland Security, $47B, Veterans Administration, $124B, and the DoD section of Overseas Contingency (aka “Wars”), $118B. All of this adds up to just short of One Trillion Dollars, or a sum nearly equal to our deficit. Does the right wing actually care about deficits or only to the extent that they can make political hay with them, as you imply? Are unions really a bad thing, and if they are, why not go after the veterans administration, which is a union in sheep’s clothing but apparently just as much of a third rail in this country as Social Security? I will not concede the mandatory retirement age because a large percentage of people who draw benefits are laborers who can’t really work past 67. Seriously, if you had to be a plumber would you want to be hoisting toilets at the age of 67? But I will concede removing benefits from all people with a net worth over $5m and increasing the minimum withholdings level to $150k. What can you offer in return?

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