Government should focus on the people
Right to Life
The new fiscal millennium is nearly one month old. We've had no budgetary equivalent of the predicted Y2K chaos, but the problems represented by the FY2000 national budget are much more insidious. While this political battle has not failed to offer partisanship, headlines, closed-door meetings, and campaign sound bites, what it lacks is respect for the inherent dignity of human life.
At the time of this writing, Congress and President Clinton remained deadlocked over the status of the national budget, which technically should have been completed in time for the beginning of a new fiscal year on October 1. Most of the 13 spending bills have not been passed by Congress and signed by the President. The government has been funded by a continuing resolution, though the prospect of a shutdown still looms.
One major source of this year's budget battle is the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which set limits on spending believed necessary for eliminating the federal deficit. Having achieved a balanced budget sooner than expected, Congress has turned its attention toward crafting a different type of balanced budget, one that does not dip into Social Security revenues to fund government activities other than Social Security payments. Raising taxes is out of the question. It has since become clear that under such constraints, government spending will have to be cut further and various accounting gimmicks employed in order to achieve a balanced budget.
This situation has left the flailing Republican party facing some dismal choices. Should Republicans stick by their spending caps and slash spending, remaining open to criticism of being mean-spirited and, in the words even of Republican presidential hopefuls, "balancing the budget on the backs of the poor?" or should Republicans cave on the spending caps or use of Social Security revenue, even though their agenda and the capability of their leadership would lose credibility? In either case, the much-maligned President Clinton could claim victory.
Apparently many politicians, when caught up in balancing the numbers, overlook that the figures in the annual spending bills are resources that make a concrete impact in the lives of individual people — the salary of an American soldier keeping the peace in Kosovo, a free school lunch for a child who would otherwise go hungry, a subsidy that keeps a family farm or business operating. Perhaps somewhere in there our government really is spending $96,000 on a toilet seat or a hundred bucks for a Band-Aid, and if so, shame on it. Nevertheless, as much fraud and waste as there may be within some government programs, I have a difficult time generalizing federal spending, particularly on the poor, as wasteful and therefore worthy of the budget axe.
Conservative budget hawks are not the only guilty party. Though I don't doubt that some Democrats — and some Republicans as well — genuinely hold helping people as their first priority, congressional Democrats have largely taken the position that they are powerless right now. They claim that things will be better when they are back in control of Congress again. Clearly Republican fumbling of the budget issue is an opportunity for Democratic political gain, even, and perhaps especially, if people suffer from spending cuts in the meantime.
Students who take Introduction to Public Policy learn that in addition to simply allocating federal dollars, the budget reflects political priorities. So what does this first national budget of the new millennium (or the last budget, if you prefer) say about American political values? Thus far, it has shown that winning partisan arguments and keeping or winning power take precedence over meeting human need. Yes, there are good-hearted people who are exceptions, but follow the debate in mainstream newspapers and find an account of the showdown between Republicans and Clinton, or talk to an overworked Appropriations staff person and find numbers that must be yet again revised until they balance.
Someday soon, maybe today, party leadership will stand up with President Clinton for a nice photo opportunity and triumphantly announce that they have come to a bipartisan agreement on the budget that will preserve Social Security. Republicans will claim they have kept their promises to America's taxpayers, and Clinton will claim that he has saved America's vulnerable from deep budget cuts. Somewhere in a tiny Capitol Hill office, staffers up on their accounting tricks will have finally made the numbers come out just right on paper — and we, the public, may never know how the final product will alter the lives of those of our neighbors who are more directly dependent on federal spending ... until next fall, when some leaders will talk of waste and others will cite figures on families denied affordable housing because of projected budget cuts. And once again, people and their needs will be up for political manipulation, if considered at all. This is no way of acknowledging the respect that every human person deserves, simply for being a human person with inherent dignity.
Both Republicans and Democrats should take a step back from their podiums and think about who their actions are really serving. We are beginning a new millennium. It is about time that our "public servants" close their mouths on rhetoric and pass a national budget that elevates the needs of the person above partisan power.
Laura Antkowiak is a senior Government major from Lewis Hall and the co-president of ND/SMC Right to Life. The Right to Life column appears every other week.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, October 26, 1999