Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Budgetary Chutzpah

The White House has now released its 2009 budget; and, by all rights, this document should serve as a mother lode for chutzpah. However, given the magnitude of the document, I have decided that, rather than attempting my own deep reading, I shall try to track the efforts of both the Congress and various think tanks to tease out the major issues, letting the chutzpah come to light as a result of such analyses. Ironically, one of the first stones was cast by the Senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, Senator Judd Gregg. Scott Lilly, of the Center for American Progress, began his own analysis of the budget proposal by observing that Gregg "called the budget submitted by his party’s president an 'academic, pro forma' product of 'smoke, mirrors' and 'incomplete numbers.'" Lilly then provided some context for this tirade:

Gregg knows the architect of that budget, Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle, better than almost anyone. He spent the better part of 2006 trying and failing to reach an agreement with Nussle on a Republican budget blueprint that both houses of Congress could agree to, and that would allow the annual spending bills to move forward. Nussle’s unbending style resulted in delaying passage of all but a few appropriation measures until Democrats took over the Congress in 2007.

In other words one way to view Nussle is as the President's ideological acolyte, whose own zeal was passionate enough to cripple the appropriations activities of a Republican Congress in 2006, thus providing one of the many causes for the pendulum to swing to the Democrats in November of that year.

One would have thought that this would be good reason for Nussle to pack it in, following the recent lead of many of the other White House ideologues; but the passion of his zeal seems to be burning as strong as ever. Thus, faced with the problem of preparing a budget for a country whose finances have been virtually bankrupted by a "war without end," whose population is straining under the greedy abuses of irresponsible lending practices, and whose only assets are gradually falling under the financial control of foreign interests (not always sympathetic to our President's ideology), he has delivered a proposal that is likely to do even more damage by, in Lilly's rather poetic turn of phrase, "hammering the fiscal solvency of state and local government."

I shall not go into the details of Lilly's argument; but I must say that, for rhetorical purposes, there is nothing quite like a bar chart where all the bars descend in the negative direction, representing values most of which are in the billions. As Lilly demonstrates, even getting to "the bottom line" is no easy matter:

The president’s 2009 budget proposes to cut discretionary payments to states by almost $13 billion, but the overall hit on state and local government finance is even greater.

The reason: Proposed mandatory spending changes in programs such as Medicaid will shift more of the growing cost of those programs back on local government. What’s more, perhaps the biggest hit is from federal funds distributed to the states under the Highway Trust Fund. While the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis drew greater public attention to our national failure to simply maintain—much less expand—our nation’s infrastructure, the administration is proposing to cut funding to the states from the Highway Trust from $38 billion in the current year to $10 billion next year.

Since the White House classifies this spending as mandatory, the proposal itself demonstrates that highway spending is indeed discretionary. When added to the cuts in other discretionary programs it pushes the hit to nearly $23 billion.

Those of us who do not live in the elevated circles of high finance and/or globalized business tend to feel economic impact most at the local level; and here in California many of the ballot initiatives we encounter have to do with either the local or state budget. Thus I am well aware of the extent to which both my own state and my own city labor long and hard over fiscal problems, many of which surface as I go through my day-to-day activities musing over why fewer and fewer things seem to work any more (and I don't even have to worry about driving on I-35, a federal highway no less, in Minneapolis). As Lilly observes, "Loading such a huge burden onto state and local governments might be a debatable option in a period of rising employment, increased property values, and growing corporate profits;" but it is hard to imagine anyone in our country unaware that none of those three preconditions are satisfied right now, nor are they likely to be in the near future.

Still, for the purposes of this particular argument, are we talking about chutzpah or ideological blindness? The answer to that question may lie in the final paragraph of Lilly's analysis, which almost deserves to be preserved for the future study of expository writing as the Mother of All Punch Lines:

One must wonder how Nussle himself would have dealt with such a situation if he had not been badly defeated a year ago last November in his race to become governor of Iowa. He appears to see his new job as an opportunity to provide a little payback to the victor of that race, Iowa Governor Chet Culver.

Yes, Nussle is passionate in his ideology; but, like many all-too-human ideologues, when there is a public rejection of his beliefs, he retaliates through spite. If the plan he designed for the 2009 federal budget was motivated not only by his ideology but also by such spite, then this should provide grounds for his receiving the Chutzpah of the Week award.

No comments: