More Fixes Won’t Fix Sequestration’s Harms

May 2, 2013

Never let it be said that Congress can’t get anything done because bipartisanship is dead. Look at how swiftly Republicans and Democrats jointly acted when the air traffic controller furloughs started inconveniencing frequent flyers.

This isn’t the first time Congress has created a loophole in the law that mandates across-the-board cuts.

When the Agriculture Department announced that it would have to furlough the inspectors who must be in meat, poultry and egg processing plants, Congress found funding to keep the inspectors on the job.

Took part of it out of the department’s fund for grants to help more schools serve breakfast to low-income students.

I’m hardly the first to note that Congress has evinced no significant concern about other delays sequestration seems likely to cause — or those that will worsen.

Nor about other harms the cuts will cause — not merely furloughs that will create hardships for some as-yet unknown number of federal employees, but as many as 750,000 actual job losses in both the public and private sectors.

And lost benefits for jobless workers who’ve been unemployed long enough to qualify for federally-funded unemployment insurance benefits. Nineteen states have already rolled out cuts averaging $120 a week. The longer states wait, the bigger the cuts will have to be.

Some of the other cuts have also gotten considerable press coverage.

So you probably know that Head Start programs have begun paring back enrollment. Some of them already have waiting lists — a far more consequential sort of delay than some extra hours in an airport.

The U.S. Secretary of Education says that about 70,000 children won’t have the early learning opportunities and other benefits,¬†e.g., health services, that Head Start provides.

One Head Start director warns that parents may have to quit their jobs to tend to their children — not unlikely, since unsubsidized child care can cost more than they earn.

And sequestration has taken a bite out of the block grant that helps pay for subsidized care.

Also out of federal programs that fund subsidized housing. Long waiting lists for housing assistance are already common. And the number of years applicants wait are often far longer than the number of hours fussed airline travelers waited.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 140,000 fewer households will have housing vouchers by early next year. Others, it says, may face rent increases — perhaps beyond their ability to pay.

Yet funds for homeless services will be cut too.

But I’m cherry-picking here, just as many say Congress just did. Those interested can find many other examples in the weekly reports the Coalition on Human Needs is publishing.

No one, I think, would doubt that Congress hasn’t acted to avert impacts like the aforementioned because the people affected don’t have the political clout that frequent fliers and agribusinesses do.

I think we’re looking at something more difficult to deal with than a power imbalance, however.

The air traffic controller and food safety inspector furloughs caused — or were about to cause — large, clear, nationwide impacts. In many other cases, the proverbial is only beginning to hit the fan — or more precisely, a vast number of fans.

Most of the genuine news we have about the impacts on low-income people and the programs that serve them are local — and often likelihoods rather than sure things.

This is partly because program directors, in many cases, don’t yet know what their share of the cut will be. Even those who do are mostly still figuring out how they’ll manage — and give various answers when asked.

We also don’t get a whole picture because stories tend to get written when some advocates have gotten reporters interested. And, face it, some programs have more heart-tug appeal than others.

In one respect, it’s good that we’re getting stories. In fact, this is a welcome — if unintended — side effect of the air traffic controller save.

Yet, in another respect, it’s dangerous. Because the more major media focus on a handful of programs — and the more grassroots campaigns call on Congress to save one or another — the more likely other FAA-type fixes become.

And most federal agencies, unlike FAA, don’t have a pot of money they can tap that they didn’t need to spend this year anyway.

So a reprieve for some programs will mean deeper cuts for others. Like as not they’ll be programs that benefit low-income people — especially those that don’t have an effective public voice or lend themselves so well to poignant individual stories.

House Republicans seem open to this. “The main thing,” says Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK), “is to secure $85 billion in savings. We are not wedded to where the savings come from.”

But the fundamental issue is the savings, a.k.a spending cuts. Sequestration is a singularly dumb way to address a problem that’s been blown out of all proportion, i.e., the federal deficit.

Yet, as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has testified, deep cuts at this point — even if not across-the-board — are likely to lead to less deficit reduction.

And the whole approach is unbalanced, since sequestration comes on top of $1.5 trillion in cuts and a mere $620 billion or so in additional revenues.

Congress ought to get rid of sequestration, which none of its members wanted — or thought would come to pass. And some, who will remain nameless, should back off their cuts-only/cuts-now solution to the long-term deficit.

That, I hope, will be the message that all who care about the well-being of our nation’s children, seniors and everyone in between will deliver. Because if we don’t hang together … Well, you know the rest.

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Why Is the Chained CPI in the President’s Budget?

April 25, 2013

My last post took on some of the basic questions raised by the debate over using the chained CPI (Consumer Price Index) to adjust Social Security benefits.

I deferred the question in the headline here because the post was already quite long, and the answer isn’t simple. So here goes …

Social Security and the Deficit

Strictly speaking, Social Security doesn’t belong in the budget at all — at least, not in the package of spending and revenue proposals we ordinarily think of as such.

It has its own revenue stream — the payroll tax, plus an earmarked portion of income taxes paid on some of the benefits it provides. It also has $2.7 trillion in reserves, i.e., the unused portion of these taxes, invested in Treasury bonds, and the interest on these.

That’s all it’s got.

A shortfall would be dreadful, but it would have no impact on the deficit — unless, as seems likely, Congress used general tax revenues to avert a sudden, big benefits cut.

This, however, is an argument for crafting a measure that will keep the program solvent, not for putting the chained CPI in the budget.

Some say that the Trust Fund is just an accounting fiction. The Treasury bonds the reserves are invested in signify money that’s being used to help pay for items in what we ordinarily think of as the budget.

When Social Security starts drawing on its reserves, as it already has, the Treasury Department has to sell some bonds to other investors in order to pay the program what it owes — or use revenues from taxes not specifically intended for Social Security.

This doesn’t mean that Social Security is contributing to the deficit, however — any more than you or I could be said to increase the deficit if we cashed in some savings bonds a grandparent once gave us.

More Revenues Without Tax Reform

The chained CPI is probably in the President’s budget in part because it would increase tax revenues without any rate-raising or loophole-closing at all.

According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, the federal government would gain $123.7 billion* over the first 10 years because tax brackets and other annually-adjusted tax provisions, e.g., the personal exemption and standard deduction, would rise more slowly.

So even a quite small increase in income could get taxed at a higher rate. The amount we’d owe wouldn’t be a whole lot greater than what we’d owe if the Internal Revenue Service continued to use the same inflation measure it’s been using.

But the tax code would be somewhat less progressive because filers at fairly low and moderate-income levels would take the biggest hits.

And at least some low and moderate-income families would get smaller reductions and/or refunds from the Earned Income Tax Credit because the maximum credit is adjusted for inflation, as are the phase-outs that gradually lower the credit when earnings reach some level above the amount eligible for the maximum.

There would be no impact on the refundable Child Tax Credit if Congress makes the current threshold for claiming it permanent, as the President has proposed.

Big if here, since we know that Congressional Republicans have wanted the EITC and the Child Tax Credit to revert to their more restrictive pre-Recovery Act forms.

Political Strategy

The revenues raised would be a small portion of the total increase the President now says he’d settle for. So it’s pretty clear the chained CPI is in the budget mainly for strategic reasons.

The received wisdom seems to be that he’s again striving for a grand bargain — offering Republican Congressional leaders the chained CPI and Medicare spending cuts they said they wanted in the fond hope they’ll agree to a scaled-back revenue-raising plan.

Or if not that, perhaps proving they’re altogether unreasonable and ought to lose their House majority next year so that Congress can get important business done.

This is what Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast thinks the President is up to — and why he thinks no one should fret about the chained CPI.

The Nation‘s John Nichols thinks otherwise. Look, he says, at how the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee is already messaging the President’s proposal as a “shocking assault on seniors.”

This is likely to depress votes for Democrats next year, Nichols predicts, citing examples from past mid-term Congressional elections.

The chained CPI proposal certainly has complicated life for Democrats in Congress now, even if they ultimately don’t have to cast an up-or-down vote on it — still TBD.

The larger issue, I think, is that the President has, to some extent, legitimized use of the chained CPI as a way to “save” Social Security — and chosen it instead of lifting the payroll tax cap.

So, as Blake Zeff at Salon asks, “How hard would it be for Republicans to push cuts through, when this [the chained CPI] is now mainstream Democratic policy?”

Cuts, I’d add, that could extend to programs specifically for low-income people, which the President’s proposal would hold harmless.

Note how House Majority Leader John Boehner grudgingly welcomes the chained CPI as an acknowledgment that “our safety net programs are unsustainable.”

This implies something far more sweeping than what the President has proposed for Social Security and Medicare, which arguably aren’t safety net programs anyway.

Well, maybe the rumblings and grumblings, mine included, are just worst-case scenarios. But I’m not ready to bet on that.

* The Office of Management and Budget estimates the revenue gain at $100 billion. Differences between CBO and OMB estimates are not unusual.


Deficit Double-Talk

February 1, 2011

About 10 years ago, arch-conservative Grover Norquist revealed the impetus behind the Bush tax cuts. “My goal,” he said, “is to cut government … down to the size where we can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.

I cite this fine display of candor because it’s notably absent from what Congressional Republicans are saying now. But it’s nonetheless applicable to the course they claim reflects the will of the American voters

First, they adamantly insist that all the Bush tax cuts must be extended. Also that even more wealth must be exempted from the estate tax. These measures, of course, increase the deficit — though the “middle class” tax cut extensions the President also wanted made up the largest part of the impact.

Then the Republican-controlled House adopts new rules that will exempt further tax cuts from budget discipline. At the same time, it subjects all spending increases to new constraints, requiring that they be offset only by spending cuts.

A good way to “cut the government down to size,” but no way to reduce the deficit.

The House Republican leadership also reaffirms its pledge to roll back federal spending to the pre-Recovery Act level. At this point, that¬† would seem to entail $60 billion in immediate cuts, plus an additional $40 billion beginning in October — assuming Congress passes a Fiscal Year 2012 budget on time.

Not good enough, says the Republican Study Committee, representing a majority of Republican House members. We want discretionary spending, i.e., the spending Congress annually approves, rolled back to the 2006 level and frozen there until 2021. Except for Defense — the single biggest chunk of discretionary spending.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the RSC plan would ultimately cut non-defense appropriations 42% below what the Congressional Budget Office says would be needed to maintain the Fiscal Year 2010 funding level, with adjustments for inflation.

No way this much could be cut without decimating key government programs — especially because it’s a sure bet that not all programs would get hit with that 42%.

Such drastic spending cuts aren’t needed to address the long-term deficit. Nor would they do so. As this nifty interactive pie chart shows, all non-defense discretionary spending accounted for just 15% of the Fiscal Year 2010 budget.

Nearly 60% was mandatory spending, i.e., spending that Congress doesn’t vote on each year. And nearly 70% of that was for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Enter Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap for America’s Future. As the Economic Policy Institute explains, the Roadmap aims to “dismantle Medicare and Medicaid,” replacing them with vouchers that would increasingly fall short of health care costs.

Also cut Social Security benefits while partially privatizing the system. This, says EPI, would mainly benefit wealthier Americans, who would also gain from drastic shifts in the tax burden — so drastic that millionaires would pay taxes at lower rates than middle-class families.

Death knell for what’s historically been our progressive federal income tax system.

These are not deficit-driven conservative proposals. They’re as revolutionary as the Tea Party’s name. Because they would radically define what we the people — well, most of us people — have come to understand as the federal government’s responsibility “to promote the general Welfare.”

The depth of the cuts, combined with the re-engineering of social insurance programs would shift that responsibility to state and local governments. But they have neither the resources nor the budgetary flexibility to assume it — even if they want to. And current evidence suggests some don’t.

Bottom line is that the House Republican majority, seconded by Republican leaders in the Senate, would roll up the safety net and roll back the clock to the nineteenth century, when poverty, education, public health and the like just weren’t any of the federal government’s business.


Republican House Leadership Aims For More Tax Cuts, Not Deficit Reduction

January 4, 2011

Just before Christmas, the House Republican leadership announced new procedural rules to govern tax and spending legislation when it takes control. They confirmed big time two of the lessons Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein found in last month’s tax cut deal.

  • No one really cares about the deficit.
  • The Republicans really, really, really care about tax cuts for rich people.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, the new House procedural rules pave the way for more tax cuts — and possibly big increases in the deficit.

I say “possibly,” as CBPP doesn’t, because the Republicans may well use the potential deficit increases to justify even more drastic spending cuts than they’ve already promised.

These spending cuts would almost certainly focus on programs that benefit moderate and low-income people because large spending areas, e.g., defense and security, would probably be exempt, as they are in the spending pledge for next fiscal year.

One rule embodies something Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said awhile ago. The deficit “isn’t because we are taxing too little…. [I]t’s because we’re spending too much.”

Incoming House Majority Leader John Boehner obviously agrees, since instead of the existing “pay as you go rule,” the House will operate under a “cut as you go rule.”

Under the so-called PAYGO rule, any spending increase had to be offset by a spending cut, a revenue increase or a combination of both. Henceforward, spending increases will have to be offset only by spending reductions. And tax cuts will require no offset at all.

This rule will inevitably erode a wide range of federal programs their costs rise, even if they’re not expanded.

Consider Section 8 housing choice vouchers, for example. They cover rental costs over 30% of the voucher holders’ incomes. Rents go up. So vouchers cost the federal government more. This is why President Obama’s proposed budgets would have provided just about enough to renew all existing vouchers, even though the proposed funding levels were higher.

Another new rule changes the reconciliation process. Basically, this process creates a bundle of budget-related measures, which are then subject to a single up-or-down vote, with limited opportunities for amendment.

In the good old days, before the Bush administration and the Republican Congressional majority decided to push through their tax cuts, the process could be used only for legislation that reduced the deficit.

Going forward, the House can use the reconciliation process to fast-track deficit-increasing packages, so long as they’re tax cuts. The process can’t be used for legislation that results in even a minimal net spending increase.

At this point, the reconciliation rule may not make much difference. The Senate still has a deficit reduction-only rule. And the process is more important there because reconciliation packages can’t be filibustered. But the new rule still shows which way the wind is blowing.

Lest there be any doubt, another new rule authorizes the Chairman of the Budget Committee to ignore rules for enforcing budget cost limits when dealing with measures to extend or make permanent all the Bush-era tax cuts — including, of course, the top tax brackets and the egregious estate tax giveaway.

Budget discipline could also be waived for a hefty new tax cut for small businesses — or rather for individuals who file tax forms indicating business income. Howard Gleckman at the Tax Policy Center explains the difference.

If past is prologue, the tax break in the offing would benefit a lot of high-earning filers we generally don’t think of as small businesses, e.g., doctors, lawyers, partners in investment firms, movie stars, major league athletes and owners of large local retail chains.

New York Times columnist/blogger Paul Krugman says the new House rules show that Republicans who claim to be deficit hawks are “frauds” — that their “self-styled … deficit hawkery is just a stick to beat down social programs.”

Strong words, but hard to disagree, I think.


“Death Tax” Dead, But Not For Long

July 19, 2010

Back in 2001, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman suggested that the Bush tax cut package should perhaps have been called the Throw Momma From the Train Act because it phased out the estate tax, ending with a total repeal this year.

But only for this year. If your multi-millionaire mom dies before New Year’s Day, you’ll inherit everything she left you tax-free, unless you live in the District of Columbia or one of the 18 states that collects an estate or inheritance tax applicable to descendants.

If you wait till next year to throw her from the train, you’ll owe the fed a top 55% tax rate on the total value of her estate over $1 million — assuming that Congress lets the Bush tax cuts expire.

But it won’t. So no reason to take your momma on a train ride.

Deficit hawks may choke at the budgetary impacts of extending unemployment benefits, COBRA health insurance subsidies and the higher federal match on state Medicaid costs. But I doubt they’ll grab the chance to add billions a year to the federal treasury by letting the estate tax revert to its pre-Bush level.

Nor apparently will more moderate factions in Congress. The starting point for the debate seems to be President Obama’s proposal to make the 2009 stage of the phase-out permanent. This would essentially give a lot of potential revenues to the heirs of quite wealthy people.

Specifically, the first $3.5 million of an estate left by an individual and the first $7 million left by a couple would be exempt from the tax. Assets above these amounts would be taxable up to a top rate of 45%. The Tax Policy Center says these rules would reduce federal revenues by $234 billion over the first 10 years.

I’ve asked myself why Obama would embrace such a large tax giveaway. Sure, he promised not to raise taxes on the middle class. But people with $3.5 million in assets aren’t, to my mind, middle class folks.

Perhaps he figured he’d got enough fights on his hands — health care reform, reform of the financial system, meaningful climate change legislation, etc. But it won’t be easy to get the 2009 estate tax reinstated.

Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) plans again to push for the bigger tax giveaway that he and Senate Blanche Lincoln (D-AZ) proposed last year. They want to raise the exemptions to $5 million for an individual and $10 million for a couple, while also dropping the top tax rate to 35%.

Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) is all for this “bipartisan compromise.” And he’s got company on both sides of the Hill.

Senator Kyl has reportedly said that the plan would be “almost as good as full repeal” of the estate tax. And indeed it would. Last year, the Tax Policy Center figured that only 0.3% of estates would owe any tax in 2011 if the President’s proposal were adopted. The Kyl/Lincoln proposal, it said, would cut the number by almost half.

Wonk Room blogger Pat Garafalo reports that Senator Kyl will try to attach the proposal to a small business bill that may come up for a vote in a couple of weeks.

But first Kyl’s got to find an offset for the extra $80 billion or so it will cost. Remember, this is not the total cost — only the projected additional cost as compared to the President’s proposal and only for the first 10 years.

In May, Kyl told reporters that he’d pretty well figured out the pay-for. He and some other leading estate tax opponents in the Senate had come up with a couple of gimmicks that would mask the actual costs. The coalition has fallen apart. Hard to know whether this means the gimmicks have been shelved.

Another clever idea that’s been floated would allow people to prepay their estate tax. No details here, but the bottom line is that it would improve the 10-year cost score by forfeiting tens of billions later.

But say that Senator Kyl and colleagues came up with an offset that wasn’t just smoke and mirrors. Why should Congress be giving away billions more to the wealthiest fraction of Americans?

Is there nothing better to do with the money? Do we or don’t we have a long-term deficit problem?


Is The Jobs Bill Dead?

June 26, 2010

You’ve probably already read that the jobs/tax bill the House sent over to the Senate in late May is dead — at least for the time being.

On Thursday, the Democratic leadership failed, for the third time, to get the 60 votes need to end debate and proceed to a substantive vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says he’s going to move on to other things unless/until a couple of Republicans come round.

Still, it’s too soon to order a tombstone.

The tax break extenders part will probably rise again. Can’t have those NASCAR race track owners and rum producers contributing more to the federal treasury that we’re given to understand is in such desperate straits.

Perhaps we’ll also see a revival of some of the changes in the tax code that were supposed to pay for the extenders. Wall Street isn’t so popular these days. So maybe the Democrats will try resurrect the weakened version of their proposal to narrow a loophole that hedge fund managers use to pay the lower capital gains tax rate on a substantial portion of their income.

A bigger question mark is the provision that would have closed a loophole used by owners of professional services companies — doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. — to shield their income from Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. Billions a year in underpayments, according to the General Accounting Office.

But those deficit-minded Republicans heeded the outcry about harming small businesses that generate jobs. Lawyers are going to put a lot of unemployed people to work? Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) must think so. She previously voted for the jobs/tax bill, but wouldn’t support the latest version because the loophole closer was there.

On the other hand, many, if not all, of the real jobs parts of the bill may truly be as dead as the proverbial doornail. They didn’t die of a thousand cuts. But what the Democratic leadership couldn’t get the magic 60 votes for had been whittled down to a sad remnant of what the Senate had previously passed.

The House had already lopped off a month of extended unemployment benefits. By last Thursday, the extra $25 a week that eligible jobless workers had gotten since the economic recovery act was passed had been eliminated. This would have reduced the average weekly benefit to $284 — not enough to lift a family of three above the federal poverty line.

The extension of the enhanced federal match on state Medicaid costs (FMAP) had also fallen victim to price tag concerns. Instead of a straightforward six-month extension of the 6.2% base rate, the bill would have provided states with 3.2% for three months and 1.2% for the remaining three.

About $8 billion sacrificed on the altar of the deficit. No heed to the impacts on the deficit of the job losses ahead as states make further cuts to rebalance their budgets.

As if that weren’t enough, funds the economic recovery act had provided for a modest increase in food stamp benefits were tapped to partially offset the costs of the rest. I understand that somewhere around $9.5 billion was shifted out of the safety net here.

And all for naught. The Republican leadership claimed concern about “job-killing taxes and adding to the national debt.” Fellow traveler Senate Ben Nelson (D?-NE) wanted the whole thing paid for too.

But this may all be a shuck. Los Angeles Times reporter Janet Hook says that the tax breaks the bill would have extended are worth $32 billion. Nearly enough to cover the unpaid-for part of the jobs bill. Did any Republican suggest they be allowed to die?

More likely, as Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein argues, the Republicans are betting that voters will view the adverse impacts on the economy — and, I would add, their personal situation — as evidence that the Democrats have failed.

But will all Senate Republicans actually stand firm on the issue of unemployment benefits? According to U.S. Department of Labor estimates, more than 1.2 million people have just lost the extended unemployment benefits they presumably were counting on. They’re by no means all in “blue” states.

By the time Senators go home for the July Fourth recess, the number will have swelled to more than 2 million. These people aren’t going to be happy. And I think Republicans are going to have a hard time blaming the Democrats. An even harder time persuading them that restoring their benefits would be fiscally irresponsible — a debt we shouldn’t be leaving their now-poor children.

Senator Snowe has suggested a standalone bill extending unemployment benefits as emergency spending, i.e., without an offset. The Democratic leadership has reportedly said no dice. But I doubt this is the last word.

I do, however, fear that it is for the FMAP extension and the other jobs-related parts of the bill. I hope I’m proved wrong.


National Town Hall Meeting To Take On The Deficit

June 21, 2010

This Saturday, April 26, people across the country will join in a virtual national town hall meeting organized by AmericaSpeaks. It’s an old organization, though new to me that seeks to give “citizens an authentic voice in … decision-making on the most challenging public issues of the day.”

It’s picked a doozy for the national town hall meeting. What should our national priorities be and how should we pay for them?

The meeting, it says, will kick off an ongoing education and communications effort to ensure that the values and priorities participants agree on are heard and listened to by decision-makers in Washington, D.C.

The context here is, of course, the enormous — in some cases, inordinate — concern about the deficit.

President Obama has made some abortive efforts to co-opt Republicans, who claim the deficit-hawk mantle, except when it comes to providing tax benefits for wealthy individuals and businesses.

He’s imposed a three-year freeze on total discretionary spending, except the big-ticket Defense Department budget and other appropriations for national security. I’ve cited concerns about this as part of a broader review of the issues on the Poverty in America blog.

He’s also established a bipartisan commission to make recommendations for putting the budget in primary balance by Fiscal Year 2015, i.e., for adjusting spending and/or tax provisions so that all federal programs and operations are paid for.

Whether the commission can actually converge on recommendations that the required 14 out of 18 members agree on is an open question. But even recommendations by smaller groups could be very influential.

We, the American public, have limited input into the President’s proposed budgets — except through our support for public interest organizations. We’ve got no input at all into the deliberations of the fiscal commission.

That’s where the AmericaSpeaks town hall comes in.

There are several things I like about the project. One is the implicit faith in grassroots democracy. The entire enterprise, after all, is rooted in the belief that a broad spectrum of everyday people can have a civil conversation about issues so entwined with personal beliefs and interests — and actually come to some sort of consensus.

Another is that AmericaSpeaks has the resources to bring off an ambitious agenda — not just funding, which seems to be considerable, but knowledge and talent. Exhibit A is its new primer on the federal budget and our fiscal challenges. Big print, simple words, lots of graphs. And, overall, the best introduction to the long-term, structural deficit I’ve read.

A third is that it’s genuinely nonpartisan. Advisory committee members represent a very broad spectrum of interests and core beliefs about the proper role of government. The list ranges from top officials at the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute and like-minded research organizations to their counterparts at the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation. This, I think, gives the project a high degree of credibility.

That said, the project is a big risk. Organizers aim to reflect the demographics of the communities where the in-person meetings will be held. But the meetings could still be dominated by tea party types and other right-wingers who rightly perceive an opportunity to shape the message AmericaSpeaks is committed to delivering. The risk seems even greater for the volunteer-sponsored “community conversations” and the online discussion.

So I think it’s important that as many of us as possible take some time out from our regular Saturday routines to participate in the national town hall meeting. (“Us” here means people who don’t believe that dismantling the safety net is the right way to curb the deficit.)

There are 19 meeting sites — none, alas, near Washington, D.C. But we who live in the Washington metro area can register for the virtual conversation. And, of course, we can pass the word along to friends and family near one of the in-person sites.

UPDATE: Some time after I posted this, the Center for Economic and Policy Research issued a critique of the AmericaSpeaks budget primer. I don’t agree with all the objections. For example, CEPR seems to believe that the document should have factored in future efforts to reduce the budget, while the enter national town hall exercise was designed to engage participants in deciding what should be done to change the current course. However, in the main, I defer to CEPR’s expertise.