For all the rhetoric you hear coming from Capitol Hill around public policy, and the vitriol of television and radio commentary, it is when proposals find their way into the budget debate that it matters most. We invest a lot of emotional energy into the dialogue around public policy but fail to follow the important discussions and debates around budget priorities, or the billions of dollars the federal government appropriates for specific programs. What our government spends money on says a lot about who we are as a nation.
The philosophical debate over what our government should fund is nothing new. It happens every year when the budget comes up for consideration and the incumbent President expresses the priorities of the administration. What is different as the President and Congress consider the fiscal year 2012 budget, and spending priorities beyond, is the tremendous deficit the nation has incurred and the impact of a historic recession on our economy. On top of the normal partisan differences on budget priorities falls the burden of a debt that threatens to cause long-term damage and impair the opportunities of future generations of Americans. President Obama succinctly conveyed the urgency of the moment in his nationally televised address last week.
It is now imperative that Blacks become fully engaged in this debate. With the House Republican leadership proposing an approach that threatens Medicare, Medicaid and many domestic programs that benefits the poor and middle class, it is important that a more progressive narrative about the country’s future come forth. Without offering any specifics, the President did offer a vision of the federal government as a caretaker of the general welfare and investor in a 21st century economy. To be certain, President Obama must begin to share more details as to how he intends to shed $4 trillion in debt over twelve years while preserving intact vital programs and investing in others that will contribute to the welfare and long-term security of the country.
There are some serious issues that we need to put on the table. Can we make deeper cuts in defense spending without jeopardizing the nation’s security? Which domestic programs actually work and what would be the real impact of cutting those that the evidence proves are not impactful? What should be our national spending priorities and how should they be reflected in the budget? How do we pay for what we need and will an antiquated tax system prevent real budget reform? Should those Americans who earn the most, pay more in federal taxes? What is our obligation to serve and support the poor?
At the heart of the budget debate is a battle over the values of our nation and two distinct visions. The one offered by the President suggests a federal government that targets its resources to address the economic security of the nation and makes difficult choices on spending cuts while preserving its role to protect the general welfare of the population. House Republicans have made cutting the deficit the priority and put on the chopping block programs that serve the poor, elderly and communities of color. This is not simply a big government v. little government debate. This is a full-fledged war over what the United States represents and it should not be lost upon us that it comes as a new demographic reality sets upon this country. While the faces at the forefront of the budget debate are mostly white, with the exception of course of the President, our nation is increasingly black and brown. Who sets policy matters and we cannot sit on the sidelines as the very future of our country is being hashed out in the nation’s capital.
At times it is difficult to connect the quality of our lives with the actions of men and women sitting in ornate rooms in Washington D.C. What happens in the halls of Congress matter and we had better make our voices heard if we desire a nation that sees our presence as an asset and not a liability. As corporations and other powerful interests converge on Capitol Hill to get or protect their slice of the federal budget pie, we need to demand likewise and be prepared to bolster our claim at the ballot box in 2012. This is not some abstract debate but an engagement that has real consequences for future generations in our community.