Put down the budget axe

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The election season is fast approaching and the rhetorical ammunition no doubt being stockpiled. This month will begin something Washington is describing as budget negotiation with an eye on the guns of August, when the government will have to raise the debt ceiling and all-out war declared. Debate over the next federal budget promises to be profoundly bitter and dysfunctional. Democrats say they will put higher taxes and defense cuts on the negotiating table, positions most Republicans reject out of hand. Republicans are again holding up the possibility of a government shutdown and seeking deep cuts in social spending. The Ryan budget includes such a substantial rewrite of the role of Medicare in American life that it appears a nonstarter.

The parties seem far apart, and it’s unclear if anyone has a practical plan for containing the unsustainable path of spending and returning the nation to fiscal sobriety. As a pundit (well, some says so), I know I should be happy about all the column fodder being marched my way, but as a citizen I feel a deep depression descending. Is there any way around this inevitable debacle? Probably not, but if there’s any hope, it may be found buried deep inside a recent Catholic Charities USA press release. In it, CCUSA President Father Fred Snyder holds up an interesting statistic. "Data has shown that as much as 40 cents of every dollar allocated to existing government initiatives that provide a variety of assistance to the American people struggling through the economic recovery are lost in the bureaucratic red tape associated with those programs,” he says.

Snyder adds, “A key ingredient is missing in the proposed prescriptions for America's economic future; the focus on a much needed larger conversation regarding efficacy and efficiency in the spending of taxpayer dollars, whether that be through state or federal government.”

It's not clear how Father Fred arrived at that figure or what data he is using to back it up, but even if the number is wrong, his suggestion is worth pondering. Snyder is arguing that before we begin the bloody spring offensive on the budget, the nation might be better off first taking a step back and a deep calming breath and launching a serious initiative aimed at reducing the waste and redundancy in existing federal programs, squeezing every dollar as tight as we can before we begin squashing assistance programs for the poor or increasing burdens on middle class taxpayers. And let’s not forget that while we shine that high beam on the cost-effectiveness of social services, it would be foolish not to do the same for other large-scale federal expenditures, particularly the Pentagon budget, long a source of epic escapades in wasteful spending. We may not permanently escape a day of complete fiscal reckoning—that’s probably for the good—but we may be able to put it off a little longer until a time when the nation is on a more secure fiscal and economic footing—perhaps a time when the budget negotiations resemble more the adult discussion they ought to be than the partisan battle promised for this spring season of fiscal discontent.