Budget Debate Is About Values, Not Numbers

New York Times columnist Richard Stevenson provides a good overview of the budget debate underway on Capitol Hill. It’s a “fundamental reassessment of the role and size of government,” he says.

But, as his article suggests, what we’re witnessing is actually a conflict of value systems — core beliefs that extend beyond theories of government.

Republicans are arguing that drastic spending cuts are the only way to avert fiscal disaster — and to create jobs. Most oppose any changes in the tax code that would increase revenues — at least until the unemployment rate has dropped to pre-recession levels. They’re “job killing,” you know.

But neither shrinking the deficit nor boosting job creation drives the Republicans’ agenda. The fact that both reflect the priorities of a wide spectrum of voters gives them an occasion to advance major policy changes consistent with their values.

By and large, Republicans want to whittle the federal government down because their value system puts individual — and corporate — liberty first.

You’re free to choose what you do. And you’re free to keep what you get, less what’s needed for a “robust defense” and presumably other functions that enable businesses to freely grow and prosper.

Thus, the budget resolution the Republican House majority just passed defines government’s “limited but noble mission [as] securing every American’s right to pursue a destiny of his or her own choosing.” And it calls for tax reforms that will let “individuals keep more of what they earn.”

The Democrats have argued that spending cuts right now would cause job losses, but they’ve decided they can’t hold the line. Some would say that the Democrat-in-chief didn’t try hard enough.

But we can’t discount the hard-won recognition that Republicans in Congress can — and will — extort spending cuts as the price for averting national crises. A government shutdown yesterday. Default on the federal debt this summer.

Democrats are nevertheless still coming at our fiscal situation from a different value system. Basically, they’re promoting an agenda that tilts toward our obligations to one another and the good of the whole — obligations that we fulfill through our public institutions.

In other words, they’re placing a high value on the nation as a community. To some extent, this means that individual liberty, as the Republicans conceive it, gives way to “the general Welfare” that’s also envisioned as a goal of the government created by our Constitution.

Beyond this, the agenda reflects the view that we need to act collectively, through our government, to expand opportunity — a necessary, though not sufficient condition for a more equal sharing of the profits generated by economic growth.

Thus, for example, the President wants more funding next year for both Head Start and Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main source of federal funding to improve the education of disadvantaged kids. House Republicans voted to cut current funding levels for both.

I’ve got serious reservations about other parts of the President’s proposed budget — and even more serious reservations about his seeming readiness to embrace even deeper spending cuts.

But I all but stood up and applauded at the end of his speech on his approach to deficit reduction. Because it so clearly articulated the clash in basic values that underlies the current budget debate — one the House budget resolution obfuscates in its claim to “strengthen the social safety net.”

“From our first days as a nation,” the President said, “we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise…. But there has always been another thread running throughout our history — a belief that we are all connected.”

And “part of this belief expresses itself in the conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security.” So we collectively contribute to programs like Medicare, Social Security and others we commonly refer to as the safety net.

The vision in the House Republicans’ budget plan, he said, “is less about reducing the deficit than about changing the social compact in America.” I think that’s right on target.

And, as Stevenson observes, Republican leaders and their supporters objected to “the implication of heartlessness, but not necessarily to his assessment of their ambition.”

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