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Republicans Brace for ‘Abuse’ Over Budget Cuts Beyond Medicare

Ryan's Budget
Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, listens during a discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2011. Photographer: Jay Mallin/Bloomberg

Republican U.S. Representative Mike Simpson often begins speeches on the federal budget in his home state of Idaho with two questions.

First, he asks constituents whether they think budget deficits are a threat to the nation’s security. Every hand goes up. The same happens when he asks if the government needs to spend less.

He then tells them the cheering is likely to stop: “By the time we’re done, if we do what’s right, every one of you is going to be mad at us.”

While most attention has focused on cuts to Medicare in the 2012 budget that House Republicans passed on April 15, party lawmakers will also face a backlash against plans to slash $62 billion, or about 15 percent, from non-security discretionary programs, or those for which spending isn’t mandated. The targets range from education and disease research to transportation and public safety.

The plan, written by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, would cap non-security discretionary spending at $360 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and freeze it for five years. That’s equal to 2006 spending levels. Democrats say that over a decade that means cuts to education, job training and social services of 25 percent below levels needed to maintain current services.

The reductions, which come on top of the $38.5 billion taken out of this year’s budget, would need to be so deep because non-security spending makes up only about 12 percent of the budget and the plan calls for taxes to be cut. Appropriators this week returned from a two-week congressional recess to begin the process of targeting specific programs to meet Ryan’s goal.

‘Axe Will Fall’

Representative Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, said the Republican plan means “significant cuts” to research budgets at the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

While it’s unclear “exactly where the axe will fall,” the Maryland lawmaker said his calculations show the Republican budget also would mean a 27 percent reduction from current levels in the budget category that funds local firefighters, and an 18 percent cut in the funding area that includes a program that puts more police officers on the street.

Representative George Miller, the top Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee, said the Republican budget would mean the maximum Pell Grant award to help low-income students afford college would be cut by more than $2,500, bringing the top award to $3,040, the lowest since 1998.

“For those core investments in our kids’ education and in science and research, it is simply shortsighted to take a hatchet to those programs,” Van Hollen said.

Public Opposed

Polls show the public agrees. A Bloomberg National Poll in March showed 77 percent of Americans oppose cuts to education, 72 percent don’t want medical-research funding reduced, and 66 percent are against scaling back community-renewal programs.

Simpson and other Republicans say this year’s $1.6 trillion projected deficit and $14 trillion in government debt leave lawmakers little choice than to target a wide scope of programs.

“I don’t think there’s any program that is going to escape budget cuts,” said Simpson, 60, a member of both the budget and appropriations committees. “I suspect we are going to get a great deal of abuse, not just from Democrats, but from our constituents.”

Simpson, who heads the appropriations panel on the interior and the environment, said programs he likes, such as a land and water conservation fund, aren’t likely to escape cuts either.

S&P Warning

Republican Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona said lawmakers risk even more by not doing enough to tackle the nation’s fiscal problems. On April 18, Standard & Poor’s put the U.S. government on notice that it risks losing its AAA credit rating unless policy makers agree on a plan by 2013 to reduce budget deficits and the national debt.

Republicans also say the discretionary spending they are aiming at rose more than 20 percent in two years under President Barack Obama.

“Last time I checked that wasn’t the age of austerity,” said Flake, an appropriator, referring to the 2006 spending levels to which Republicans want to return. He favors scaling back agriculture subsidies.

Likely targets are areas that have seen the biggest increases in funding over the past decade, such as education, transportation, health research and foreign assistance, said Brian Riedl, a budget analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a policy research organization in Washington.

State, Local Issue

Riedl said the impact will be limited because most of the money for education, police and fire comes from local and state governments, including 90 percent of K-12 education funding.

For all the debate about the deficit in Washington, bond market yields in the U.S. are lower now than when the government was running a budget surplus a decade ago, even though Treasury data show the amount of marketable debt outstanding has risen to more than $9 trillion from about $4.3 trillion in mid-2007.

The budget doesn’t provide specific cuts. It sets a cap, and the Appropriations Committee has to come up with detailed plans in the coming months.

The Congressional Budget Office said in an April report that Ryan’s plan “specifies a path” that would cause government spending outside of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest to drop to 6 percent of the gross domestic product in 2022 from 12 percent in 2010. Spending in that category has exceeded 8 percent of GDP in every year since World War II, the nonpartisan agency said.

‘Lot of Pressure’

As the population increases it becomes more difficult to provide services with less money, said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, which promotes balanced budgets. Republicans will be hard-pressed to keep up the level of cuts for five years, Bixby said.

“They will get a lot of pressure from people back in the district -- business leaders, educators, doctors, hospitals,” he said. “You are going to hear from the hometown interests that the federal government isn’t doing enough to help the local economy.”

A coalition of Christian leaders has formed a group called “Circle of Protection” to prevent cuts in programs that help the poor and needy.

“If you come after the poor, you will have to go through us first,” Reverend Jim Wallis, an evangelical author, said on a conference call with reporters.

Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said volunteers are stepping up efforts across the country to prevent cuts to biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health and cancer-prevention programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Republicans had proposed a $1.6 billion reduction in the $31 billion NIH budget for this year. That was scaled back to $260 million in negotiations with Democrats.

Simpson acknowledged the difficulty of the cuts. He said 2012 spending levels ultimately will be a compromise between the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate.

“There’s no way to make this painless,” he said.

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