This op-ed first appeared in the Concord Sunday Monitor

November 14, 2010

Budget advice for Gregg; For cuts, look to military spending

 Arnie Alpert

 To U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg:

The recommendations from Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, released last Wednesday, include some interesting ideas. But they stray from the major factors which drove up the deficit over the past decade. As you and the other members of commission complete your work in the next two weeks, we hope you will focus on reversing tax cuts, decreasing military spending, and ending the recession.

Let's start with the recession, which has forced millions of people nationwide onto the unemployment rolls. Even with New Hampshire's unemployment rate far below the national average, 40,070 of our neighbors were not paying income taxes in September, nor were they contributing to the funds for Social Security and Medicare. Even with the economic picture brightening a bit, use of food stamps in New Hampshire has risen every month for the past year. Getting people back to work has to be the top priority of any effort to reduce deficits in the long-term, even if it costs money in the short run.

Today, military-related programs, including operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, account for more than half of the federal discretionary budget, those items that are affected by annual congressional votes. According to the Sustainable Defense Task Force, a group of experts convened by U.S. Reps. Ron Paul and Barney Frank, increased defense spending accounts for nearly 65 percent of the increases in federal discretionary spending since 2001. Serious deficit-cutters need to look there for savings.

The defense spending recommendations from Bowles and Simpson, including cutting our overseas military bases by one-third, are a good place to start. The Sustainable Defense Task Force has more, adding up to $1 trillion that can be saved over the next 10 years without harming our fundamental ability to defend the country from 21st-century threats.

The federal tax cuts enacted during the George W. Bush administration are the third major contributor to the deficit and will cost the federal treasury another $3.4 trillion over the next 10 years if they are allowed to continue. While no one wants to pay more in taxes, the wealthiest Americans can afford to see their rates return to the levels of nine years ago. That would reduce the deficit by about $70 billion a year over the next decade.

Some areas should be off the table. Social Security is not in need of a major overhal. Rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid are tied to the rising cost of health care in general and should be addressed by steps that put halth care costs under control.

Our state saw a record number of home foreclosures this year, and personal and business bankruptcies are taking place at a rising pace, despite some positive indications of economic recovery. Unless they can propose a way to cap layoffs, foreclosures and illnesses, the deficit cutters should stay away from food stamps, unemployment benefits, child care, housing subsidies and other programs that aid the neediest Americans.

Senator Gregg, the report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, expected Dec. 1, will be one of your final acts in the U.S. Senate. We hope you will agree that the deficit can be addressed by putting Americans back to work, cutting military programs that do little for our actual defense, and eliminating unnecessary tax breaks, all without cutting into the programs that keep people fed, housed and healthy.

After all, the budget is an expression of our moral values, not just our economic needs.

(Arnie Alpert is New Hampshire program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee.)