Keep Your Eye on the Ball

Apr 14, 2011

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Media coverage of the federal budget focuses almost entirely on the political horse race aspects: Is the President or Congress doing better in the overnight polls?  Who is winning?  Does compromise make you look statesmanlike or weak?  Often lost in the shuffle is the actual substance of the budget: What programs will get funded? How will they be paid for?

Even those who care most about policies may find their eyes glazing over when the conversation switches from cuts in specific programs to the budgetary rules.  Yet these establish the playing field – and can tilt the results one way or the other, as when the House says that spending increases must be offset or balanced with cuts elsewhere, while tax loopholes can be added without regard to the deficit.

Over 50 million Americans were uninsured in 2009. This number would go up under House Budget Chairman Ryan’s proposal.  Many seniors would be unable to find insurance they could afford with the voucher that would replace Medicare.  Faced with a Medicaid block grant, states would have little choice but to deny coverage to poor children, seniors, or individuals with disabilities, cut benefits, or reduce payments, thereby making it harder for beneficiaries to find care.  Ryan would also cancel the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of insurance to millions of low- and middle-income workers and their families.

Nearly one in five Americans struggled to provide enough food for themselves and their families in 2010.  The Ryan plan would cap federal spending on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) starting in 2015.  Even if this cap is not set below the then-current spending levels, this would cripple SNAP’s ability to respond to the next recession.  Children would be denied help if their parents were not receiving benefits.

As the budget progresses, the question should not be whether the Democrats or Republicans gave up more, but what effect would the proposals have on American workers, children and retirees, both in the immediate future and in the next recession.

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