On Spending, Congress Will Take the Coward's Way Out

The well-connected and the influential constitute a powerful lobby for spending.

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Before Congress and the president finally agree on a budget, there will be many twists and turns in this saga. Well-connected special pleaders with more access to policymakers than ordinary citizens are already at work trying to preserve what they regard as sacrosanct. Several weighed in last Sunday in the Washington Post. All argued that the cause they advocate comprises a very small part of the budget and that cutbacks will not make a significant dent in the deficit.

Memory brings to mind a phrase widely attributed to the late GOP Senate Minority Leader, Everett McKinley Dirksen. “A million here, a million there," he would say, “and pretty soon you're talking real money.” Dirksen would have thrown up his hands had he been able to see recent opinions the Post has been publishing. [Check out a roundup of cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

There was “conservative” George F. Will pressing for public funds for Teach For America, a privately run entity that those on both the left and the right rightly praise for its success in educating children in poor and underserved school districts. Until Will made his plea, I had not realized that the organization, which sends recently minted college graduates into classrooms for two years, received public funds. I doubt many of his other readers did either.

More surprising than Will's support of providing it with federal funds was the reason he cited to justify this expenditure. Teach For America, he argued, needs them so that it can leverage these public monies to attract private donations. Sounds logical to me. Yet, for years, Will has turned a deaf ear and a hostile keyboard to identical arguments symphony orchestras, ballet companies, and museums make in support of continued funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, a grants-dispensing agency that he would like to see abolished. [Read more about the national deficit and debt.]

Let us grant that Wendy Kopp, TFA’s founder, has done more to promote a spirit of service among the “best and brightest” than anyone since Sargent Shriver. In pressing the case for awarding her organization public funds, Will ignores two basic facts. The first is that the Ivy Leaguers who fill its ranks next year (8,000 strong, he says) do not stay in their posts long enough to make a sustained impact on school districts in which they work. (Many, he notes, remain involved in education some way—I suspect more on the peripheries than as full-time teachers.) The second is that government support for programs, both good and bad, is financed through taxes and collected through coercion. Those who share Will’s admiration for the writings of economist Milton Friedman might be forgiven for asking why taxes taken from restaurant workers, janitors, hospital orderlies, and the unemployed should be used to support sons and daughters of the upper middle class during the two years they spend in the classroom after they graduate from Princeton and before they start earning megabucks managing hedge funds.

Elsewhere in the newspaper, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns argues that any cuts to PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities “threaten the cultural, educational, and informational influences that help equip us for enlightened citizenship.” Burns may or may not be correct when he says “not one” of his documentaries “produced solely for PBS over the past 30 years could have been made anywhere but on public broadcasting.” Yet, once produced, Mr. Burns’s materials are aired on other channels and sold in stores, on the Internet, in museum shops, and over PBS. If support provided Burns with the seed money necessary to get his projects going (that old fashioned “leverage” again), should not some of the royalties that flow his way as a result of this public “investment” be returned to the government? The same might be said of proceeds from Sesame Street paraphernalia and DVDs produced by Burns’s radio counterpart, Garrison Keillor.

Father Ted Hesburgh insists that zeroing out funds to the Institute of Peace would make ours an even more violent planet. If this government founded, funded, and operated think tank is as effective as he says in promoting world peace, perhaps Congress might reallocate to it some of what it sends to the less effective and far better known United Nations. Budgeting is, after all, about making choices—or so the textbooks tell us. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]

Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood warns that if the organization she heads loses federal funds, “no other provider could step in and offer equivalent care.” One wonders why not, given what is spent every year on hospitals, clinics, local governments, and Medicaid. Her declaration that anything less than full restoration of her organization’s funds constitutes a “war on women’s health,” suggests that an entity with as little a sense of proportion as this should not be entrusted with public funds.

The well-connected and the influential constitute a powerful lobby for spending. Expect Congress to take the coward’s way out by cutting most programs across the board. That will assure that priorities are not established, worthy endeavors get shortchanged, and wasteful spending again escapes the axe. Legislators will pronounce their actions eminently “fair” since “everything had been on the table.” Donors, who used their clout to pass their obligations onto the federal government, will shell out campaign donations to legislators who kept money flowing. And the joke will be on those who thought that the way business is done in Washington might actually change.

  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.
  • Follow the money in Congress.
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