Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

April 5, 2012

Analysts, pundits and press are reporting on daily progress — if we can call it that — toward a federal budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Meanwhile, the entire panoply of programs that depend on annual appropriations are at high risk of automatic across-the-board cuts come January 2013. So are some so-called mandatory programs, i.e., those whose funding is assured by the laws that created or renewed them.

The cuts would be the first round in an annual series — divided between defense and non-defense, i.e., everything else the federal government spends money, except certain specific programs and interest on the debt.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates the initial hit to the non-defense discretionary programs at $38.7 billion — these on top of the cuts Congress has already made.

By the end of the series, in 2021, cuts to these programs would total an estimated $294 billion. Congress would presumably try to hit the reduction targets. Across-the-board cuts would slice off any excess.

As you may know, Congress agreed to the automatic cuts as part of the Budget Control Act — the compromise that resolved the stalemate on the debt ceiling last August. But it didn’t intend for them to happen.

Sequestration — the technical name for across-the-board cuts — is a blunt instrument. Nobody likes it.

In fact, it was put into the BCA to give the Super Committee a super incentive to come up with a more sensible plan for reducing the deficit.

As I’m sure you do know, the incentive didn’t work. So now Congress has to decide whether to let sequestration go forward or pass an alternative the President will sign.

The President himself as an alternative in his proposed budget — hit the deficit reduction targets by a mix of spending cuts and revenue raisers.

In the latter category we’ve got tax increases on upper-income filers and some corporate tax loophole closers, but also initiatives that would increase taxable income by getting more people back to work.

The Ryan-Republican budget plan includes a very different alternative — “reprioritize sequester savings,” as Ryan’s spokesman puts it.

Translated out of double-speak, this means give defense more than the Pentagon wants and cut both discretionary and mandatory non-defense programs well below the levels the BCA would require — a whopping $261 billion more over the first 10 years.

Cuts to mandatory programs would include some that are now shielded from the across-the-board cuts — Medicaid, for example, and SNAP (the food stamp program).

Well, neither of these plans will get enacted. And large majorities in the House swiftly dispatched five others.

So unless something quite remarkable happens — or Republicans sweep the November elections — the across-the-board cuts the BCA mandates is what we’ll have.

What would they mean for programs that serve the needs of low-income and other vulnerable people? A new report by the Coalition on Human Needs offers a tentative answer.

I’ll return to it in another post, but you can guess the drift from the title CHN chose — Self-Inflicted Wounds.

They’re wounds not only to low-income people, but to many of those still hanging on by their fingernails in the middle class. And they’re wounds to our economy now and for the long term.

Take a look at the projected nationwide cuts and you’ll see what I mean.


How We Can Join The Fight Against Radical Spending Cuts

February 12, 2011

Enough — at least for the time being — about radical spending-cut plans in Congress. Here’s some good news.

The Coalition on Human Needs and allies have launched what promises to be a massive campaign against the cuts. It’s called SAVE (Strengthening America’s Values and Economy) for All.

SAVE for All is a large and growing coalition of faith-based, labor, civil rights, direct service and policy analysis organizations committed to a balanced approach to deficit reduction — and one that will foster opportunity and economic security for all Americans.

They’ve developed a statement of principles, formed working groups, initiated meetings with members of Congress and laid the groundwork for a broad-based grassroots effort.

All this in an amazingly short-period of time. I’ve been around long enough to have witnessed lots of coalition campaigns on similar issues. I’ve never seen one with as much cohesion, energy and strategic expertise.

But what can we do? At least one thing right now — maybe more depending on where we live and the type of organization we work for.

1. Put a human face on the issues.

We can all share stories about how federal programs have improved our lives and/or the lives of people we know.

It’s one thing — and an important thing — to say that, according to the latest Census figures, food stamps kept 4.8 million people from falling below the federal poverty line.

Quite another, more personally-compelling thing to tell members of Congress, the media and, through them, the public how food stamps kept you and your children from going hungry. Or if you work for a service provider, how food stamps have supported your efforts to help your clients.

Half in Ten is partnering with CHN to collect brief stories, written and video. It plans to put some of them into an online interactive map so that members of Congress can learn directly how federally-funded programs have made a positive difference in the lives of their constituents.

These stories will also be enormously helpful to advocates at state and local levels, as well as those in the halls of Congress. Just think what you could do with a good story or two in an op-ed or letter to the editor.

Stories won’t take long to write, since they shouldn’t be more than 250 words. Videos need not be professional quality. Check out the additional guidance here. Then look at the suggested topic areas, draft or record and go back to the same page to send your story for the collection.

2. Help the coalition grow.

If you work for an organization that falls into any of the categories above, sign the statement of principles on its behalf. Or share the principles and the opportunity with someone who has the authority to sign.

CHN will be collecting signatures from national organizations for the indefinite future. The initial deadline for state and local organizations is February 16. But that doesn’t mean that later endorsements won’t be added.

3. Tell your Senators to stand up for the interests of low-income people.

Those of you who have Senators can urge them to protect the programs low-income people depend on when the continuing resolution comes over to their side of the Hill — and in the challenging days beyond. Half in Ten has an editable form letter you can use.

Best we who live in the District can do is pass the word along our fully-enfranchised friends and relatives. Our community needs the at-risk funding as much as any. So I think it’s well worth our time.

Benefits Will Jump Start Economic Recovery

January 29, 2009

The Coalition on Human Needs has done us all a great service. It has issued a summary of the provisions in the House economic recovery package that will benefit low-income people and others at immediate risk of hardship. Anyone who’s tried to read the legislation–or even the Appropriations Committee’s summary–knows how useful this is.

CHN also identifies shortcomings in the package, including the short shrift given to affordable housing. No funding for additional housing vouchers, despite the rising tide of homelessness. No funding to support the construction of new affordable housing, despite the job creation potential. To me, these are glaring gaps.

However, CHN’s most important message is that the provisions targeted to low-income people and laid-off workers will do more than alleviate hardship. Combined with proposed increases for K-12 education programs, they will save or create nearly two million jobs.

This is because they will quickly put money into the hands of people who will spend it to meet their needs. Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Economy.com has translated this obvious truth into dollars and cents. He says, for example, that a $1.00 increase in food stamps will generate an estimated $1.73 in near-term economic growth.

The Economic Policy Institute has crunched the numbers another way. Its analysis for CHN shows that the food stamp provisions in the House package will save or create about 185,000 jobs. Think grocery store clerks, drivers for distribution companies, workers in food processing plants, etc.

Experts, including Zandi and the Congressional Budget Office, say that tax cuts are a less effective economic stimulus. CBO is particularly unenthusiastic about reductions in the corporate tax rate. As it says, businesses will not spend more money on labor or produce more just because they have more after-tax income. They need increased consumer demand. And that’s what the proposed food stamps increase and other measures targeted to low-income people will deliver.

Nevertheless, Congressional Republicans want less spending and more tax relief in the economic recovery package. And on the House side, they clearly won’t budge. Not a single Republican voted in favor of the package the House passed yesterday.

Now, there’s a reasonable argument to be made for paring down the spending part to focus it more on jump starting the economy and perhaps also for expanding the tax part. But substituting tax relief for the major measures CHN endorses should be a non-starter. Fortunately, it looks as if it will be.

Support Health Coverage for Uninsured Children

January 14, 2009

The Coalition on Human Needs has issued an urgent action alert to mobilize public support for reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

SCHIP provides health insurance for children of working families who earn too much to qualify for Medicare but not enough to afford private health insurance. It had to be temporarily extended last year because President Bush twice vetoed an expansion that would have covered an additional 4.1 million children–most of them already eligible for coverage.

Expansion is more urgent than ever. CHN says that more than a million more children are now uninsured because their parents have been laid off and so no longer have employer-sponsored health insurance.

Congress has decided to put SCHIP expansion at the top of its action agenda, knowing it will not again be vetoed. And the votes seem to be there. But more is needed than a higher level of authorized funding.

Under current law, immigrant children and pregnant women who are legally in this country must wait five years to become eligible for Medicaid and SCHIP. The bill in the House of Representatives would allow states to eliminate this discriminatory waiting period. The current Senate bill would not.

The House is likely to pass its version of SCHIP reauthorization today. The Senate will begin considering its version soon. So those who want SCHIP expanded and legal immigrant children treated equitably need to contact their Senators ASAP. (Or course, those of us who live in D.C. have no voting Senators to influence. But that’s an issue for another day.)

For the rest of you, there’s a toll-free hotline to the Capitol Hill switchboard. Just call 1-800-828-0498 and ask to be put through to each of your Senator’s offices. Two quick, free calls could make a big difference for children’s health.