The federal shutdown may have ended, but deep cuts continue.
We have already cut discretionary spending well beyond the levels proposed in the House Republicans’ 2011 budget, considered radical at the time, and more cuts are on the table for a new budget agreement in December. The shutdown shuttered Bridgeport Head Start and sent 1,000 children home, took down critical sources of public information like the U.S. Census Bureau, and closed national parks from coast to coast. However, even after the shutdown, we face cuts in discretionary spending that implement much of it in slow motion.
These cuts affect most federal departments and programs, with the exception of automatic spending like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and debt service. Cuts have hit the Defense Department and NASA, cancer research and food inspection, student loans and school lunches. These public investments ensure our safety in the present and spur new advances for our future.
And it is these investments that we continue to slash. Thanks to automatic “sequestration” cuts and the 2011 debt-ceiling budget deal, discretionary spending this year will be about 15 percent less than what Congress enacted for 2010. It is set to fall from 8.3 percent of the economy in 2012 to 5.5 percent in 2023, and comprise the smallest share of the federal budget in over 60 years. In 1962, when America led the rest of the world, discretionary spending totaled 12.7 percent of the national economy.
These cuts represent a basic reordering of national priorities, a public decision to put away less to build the future and benefit rising generations. These cuts represent a choice — whether conscious or not — to shy away from solving big problems together. As America’s place in the world looks uncertain, these cuts deny our children the tools to compete, keeping them out of preschool, leaving them ill prepared to pay for college, and forgoing scientific breakthroughs that may power the economy for decades. Simply put, these cuts threaten to end the long American tradition of passing greater opportunity from one generation to the next.
While the shutdown may have ended, this reordering continues. Moreover, further fiscal fights are on the horizon: a deal on further budget cuts is scheduled for December, a second shutdown is possible in January, and a new debt ceiling fight looms in February. Rather than aiming merely to hold steady on vital programs at these critical decision points, we must restore funding to crucial future investments. We must seek to expand, not shrink, the number of children in preschool; to graduate more, not fewer, students from college.
Making these investments is not only crucial for our future, but also critical to solving the debt worries driving much of our budget debate. America does indeed face large long-term liabilities on the non-discretionary side of the budget, Medicare and Social Security primarily. However, if our economy does not return to sustainable growth, these liabilities will be impossible to afford. More than a debt problem, America has a growth problem. And discretionary spending on education and research, transportation and health, is central to growth, to the next scientific breakthrough and the next generation of workers. We should be spending more, not less on these crucial programs.
Wade Gibson is a Senior Policy Fellow in charge of the Fiscal Policy Center at Connecticut Voices for Children.