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January 23,2011

Column #1,535

Give the Public a Voice on Cutting the Deficit

By Mike McManus

“Both sides are afraid of the voters,” observed one of TV talking heads after the State of the Union.

She’s right.  President Obama spoke for nearly an hour before he mentioned America’s massive deficit, projected to be $1.5 Trillion this year (a detail he neglected to mention). And then he made only minor suggestions about how to reduce it, such as consolidating federal agencies such as two who manage salmon – one in fresh water, and one in salt water. Golly, that might save a couple hundred thousand dollars.

He said he was open to tort reform to limit law suits that are escalating the cost of Medicare and Medicaid.  Of course, he opposed tort reform during the health care debates because attorneys are big Democratic contributors.

The Republicans were not much more forthcoming.  Speaking on behalf of the Republicans, Rep. Paul Ryan, Chairman of the Budget Committee, said, “We face a crushing burden of debt.  The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy. and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead.”

But did he suggest how to cut the deficit.  No but he assured us his proposals “are anchored in the Declaration of Independence.”  Wonderful.

Fortunately, there have been both public and private Commissions which have developed sensible proposals for budget reform.  And a House Republican Study Committee has recommended a stunning $2.5 Trillion worth of spending cuts over the next decade.  Some of them are significant:

1.         Block implementation of Obamacare, saving $80 billion.

2.         Eliminate federal pay raises for 5 years and cut the federal workforce by 15% through attrition, and cut the Federal Travel Budget in half, which alone would save $7.5 billion per year.

3.         Stop the $445 million annual subsidy for public TV and Community Development Block Grants saving $4.5 billion yearly.

4.         Halt Amtrack subsidies, saving $1.6 billion and stop intercity rail grants of $2.5 billion a year each.

However, the American public needs to be given a voice on the more controversial issues.  Some years ago, I persuaded all of the TV stations in the New York area to cooperate in framing issues for public debate.  Five one-hour programs were broadcast every other weekend on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and smaller stations.  Each show framed choices for public debate – and for informal citizen “balloting.”   And 28 daily newspapers published articles on the pros and cons of the issues plus ballots for response.

            In a Town Meeting on Poverty, one question was this: “What should be done to raise the income of the working poor?  1) Nothing. 2) Raise minimum wages and provide public service jobs for everyone laid off as a result.  3) Support low wages with federal cash supplements varying with family size.  4) No opinion.”

            The public overwhelmingly supported wage subsidies.  New York Sen. Jacob Javits introduced legislation that became the Earned Income Tax Credit. While the Town Meeting had no authority, politicians paid attention.

            Assume that ABC and CNN were persuaded to air an American Town Meeting Special, and TIME and USA Today participated by publishing articles on the pros and cons of the options, and gave people a way to ballot on these choices:

            Since Americans are living longer, should the retirement age be raised to 67 for: 1) Social Security (now 66). 2) Medicare (now 65).

            If either were raised, should it be: 1) Immediate.  2) Phased in over 10 years

            If a cohabiting couple has an unwed birth, the mother receives welfare, Medicaid, food stamps and wage subsidies as if she were single, living alone, and not benefiting from the father’s income.   Should benefits only be given to truly single mothers?

            Should the number of federal workers 1) Be reduced by 15% by attrition over five years? 2) Should their wages be frozen for five years? 3) Should their travel budget be cut in half?

            Should federal funding be ended for 1) Public Broadcasting System; 2) Amtrak; 3) National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities; 4) Community Development Block Grants 5) Farm subsidies?

            Should implementation of Federal Health Care legislation be blocked?

            Here’s how the American people could be given a voice on their own future. Once the politicians see where the public stands on controversial issues, it would be easier to propose laws to cut federal spending. 

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