Friday, July 22, 2011

How Federal Budget Showdown Affects Boston

As President Obama and both houses of Congress negotiate over spending cuts and the national debt limit, advocates and providers of health care and social services are trying to get more attention for the possible toll on the needy. In a demonstration yesterday outside Government Center in Boston, they turned the heat on the state's Republican Senator in Washington, Scott Brown.

The next day, Brown would vote for the more stringent cuts that would have been required by the "Cut, Cap and Balance Act." The measure was defeated by a vote of 51-46, and liberal advocates were quick to denounce Brown for voting to "gut" Social Security and Medicare while protecting tax breaks for millionaires and "big oil." But a nationwide survey newly posted in the Rasmussen Report shows Republicans doing better than Democrats in handling debate over the debt ceiling. Even if that hardly proves Brown's vote would have a similar level of support in Massachusetts, he does have whatever political advantage there might be in favoring the GOP measure, yet without the disadvantage of its full range of cuts taking effect.

Should there be a political compromise along more moderate lines, that would still probably result in dramatic changes in federal spending. As of last night, President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner were reportedly trying to get support for a deficit reduction of $3 trillion over the next ten years. If that fails to appease many Republicans in the House, it could also be tough to swallow for many Democrats.

As for the effect of reaching an agreement before the deadline for action on the debt ceiling, the best scenario would have the advantage of a financial crisis averted and a more sustainable pace of federal spending, with benefits for the economy at some point. But, even in that scenario, there would be short-term disadvantages, with job losses and cuts in federal money for everything from publicly supported health coverage to grants for higher education--even for people working their way out of poverty at community colleges and programs offered by Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD). In response to the federal budget developments this week, ABCD President and CEO John Drew issued a memo, which included these observations on the possible range of budget cuts:

Our elected officials in Congress are battling in budget negotiations tied to an agreement to raise the debt ceiling. President Obama has convened ongoing meetings to reach a budget compromise. On the table are severe cuts in federally funded domestic programs, including CSBG. The two sides find themselves at an impasse over the President’s insistence that tax increases as well as spending cuts be included in the legislation. Thus ABCD programs and many others – including Medicare, Social Security, Food Stamps, public housing and other “safety net” programs – could be sacrificed in the budget compromise.

If Congress does not reach an agreement and the debt ceiling is not raised, then the government will be unable to pay its bills and ABCD programs along with Social Security, government pensions and salaries, and other programs will not receive the federal payments due them.

At a time when the economy is in desperate straits, when unemployment remains high and people struggle to pay their mortgages and rent and put food on their tables, our national leaders in Congress and the White House should not be putting Americans – especially our most vulnerable citizens – at this terrible risk. I call for our elected officials to get together and act responsibly so that increased misery is not inflicted on the most vulnerable in society. At a time when increasing numbers of Americans are at economic risk we should be investing in job creation, boosting programs that help the most vulnerable in society, and doing what is necessary to keep the country going. We should not be gambling with people’s lives.

Thus we are in a position similar to that of last spring – when the new conservative majority in the House of Representatives proposed huge domestic cuts including elimination of our critically needed Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) monies – in the budget that would continue funding America. At that time we let Congress and the world know that Community Action is too important to cut and that the work of ABCD and the 1,000-plus CAPs across America is essential to the survival and upward mobility of the huge numbers of Americans struggling in poverty and to the nation’s economic recovery.