Would Americans be able to write the federal budget if they had the facts? Jo Comerford, executive director of the National Priorities Project, thinks they should be given the chance.
Comerford was in Little Rock Monday speaking at the Clinton School of Public Service to a crowd of 30-40 people. Her goal was to explain rather than persuade. She asked attendees to imagine how they would allocate $1 to different federal priorities and then detailed how the money actually is allocated.
About 64 percent of the federal budget is mandatory spending – Social Security, Medicare, etc. – and isn’t touched unless Congress makes a special effort to do so, which it won’t unless it absolutely must. Another 6 percent goes to interest on the national debt. That’s not under Congress’s control, either, unless Congress were to default on the debt.
That leaves about 30 percent of the federal budget that’s really up for debate. More than half of that goes to the military. The rest is split between other priorities, including transportation, science, etc.
Comerford explained how the process is supposed to work, and how it instead has broken down. The president submits a budget every year to which Congress is supposed to react, but Congress hasn’t finished a budget on time even once in the past 10 years. During three of those years, the federal government has been funded by continuing resolutions – basically just spending what we did the year before, no matter how wasteful the program and regardless of whatever good ideas have been proposed. Then there was last year’s government shutdown.
This is no way to run a budget, she said. Because Congress is out of regular order, the process isn’t open or transparent. How can Americans have a say in their government if they don’t know when their government is going to act?
Solutions? Comerford thinks the budgeting process should involve regular deadlines that mark when the various parts of the budgeting process are supposed to be completed. After trying for six years to explain billions and trillions to adults with a limited basis in such concepts, she’d like to see a curriculum created where schoolchildren are taught about the budgeting process.
Most interestingly, she’d also like to see individuals in communities across the country do what she asked participants to do before her talk – set their own budgeting priorities. Those priorities would be totaled and averaged to create a people’s budget that would be submitted at the same time as the president’s. It would be the people’s budget that would be the starting point for the discussion, which is only fair, considering individuals generate 80 percent of all federal tax dollars through income and payroll taxes.
Earlier in her talk, Comerford had asked participants to describe the federal budget. They had responded, predictably, with adjectives such as "big," "bloated" and "complicated." She quoted Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who called it a "moral document."
So it is. Morality involves choices. For a long time, Americans have chosen to allow their elected representatives to spend their money in ways that surely do not reflect American values. Surely we don’t believe passing on $17 trillion in debt to our children is the moral thing to do.
Comerford didn’t dwell on the debt – not as much as I would have. I get the impression her ideal budget would involve spending more money than mine would.
But I think we could work together – we and millions of other non-elected Americans, if given the right information and a chance to help determine our national priorities. That’s Comerford’s dream, and frankly, it’s not too much to ask.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.