Budget Bust

President Bush announced yesterday that his administration is ahead of schedule in reducing the federal deficit. Great news -- but it would be useful to ask who is paying the price. Unfortunately, one odd feature of this years' congressional campaigns has been the failure of the Democratic Party to ask that question forcefully, and focus public attention on a most interesting document: the 2006 federal budget.

That Republican candidates don't really want to talk about the budget is understandable. It's hard to imagine swing voters anywhere rallying to their side if they fully understood the wide range of programs supporting America's families and communities that have been cut. And indeed, not a single Democrat in the House or the Senate voted for the 2006 budget. Whatever their differences on Iraq, they were completely united on this one. Unfortunately, they seem equally united in downplaying any of this in their campaigns -- an unfortunate reflection of a common Democratic failure to make connections between national policy and local experience.

Here are a few examples what this year's budget included, and what it means:

The president claims that only he and his party are fully prepared to wage the war on terror and the Democrats can't be trusted. But the budget to support "First Responders" -- police, firefighters, and other local officials -- dropped from $3.2 billion in 2002 to $2.4 billion this year. That's a $750 million cut. The president is also working hard to terminate the major programs that provide federal support to local law enforcement -- particularly the Local Law Enforcement Grants Program and the COPS program started by Bill Clinton. He's making progress. One year after 9/11, local law enforcement agencies received $3.4 billion from Washington. Now they receive only $1.5 billion. How exactly has this made America safer?

Meanwhile, even as the country was wrestling with the consequences of neglecting our fragile infrastructure last year in the wake of Katrina, Congress voted to cut the major program used by local governments to rebuild blighted urban neighborhoods -- the Community Development Block Grant -- by $500 million. The president had wanted to eliminate the program entirely, which went too far even for the Republicans in Congress. But they still cut the program by more than 10 percent.

On education, the new name of the game is no cutback left behind. For the past two years, the president has made explicit in his annual budget proposals his desire to terminate 142 programs supporting education, including Upward Bound, the Safe and Drug Free Schools program, and vocational education. And even as Republican Senator Arlen Specter decried these proposals as "scandalous," he and his Republican colleagues ultimately approved a 5 percent cut in federal support for Title 1 funding of local schools. America's schools now receive $350 million less from Washington annually than they were getting five years ago.

And whatever happened to "compassionate conservatism?" Federal support for job training has been reduced by 37 percent over the past five years -- from annual budgets of $5 billion down to less than $3 billion this year. The budgets of programs supporting housing for the elderly and disabled, aid to distressed public housing, and low-income Community Action Agencies are $1 billion less than they were in 2002. The U.S. Conference of Mayors is now reporting a 6 percent increase in requests for emergency shelter in 24 cities they surveyed last year. But we are promised by the president that more cutbacks are yet to come in future years.

These are just a few examples. Bill Clinton used to give us an annual laundry list of programs that he wanted to fund. George Bush now gives us an annual laundry list of programs that he wants Congress to cut. The basic philosophy of the Bush administration seems to be that while it's an honor to die for your country, it's an imposition to pay for it.

Distressingly, however, few Democratic candidates have made fighting community cutbacks a major theme of their campaigns, not even in the critical swing districts that will determine who controls Congress. Nationally, the only reference to the budget in the six-point agenda released by the House Democratic leadership last June concerned "Requiring Fiscal Responsibility" and "Restoring the Budget discipline of the 1990's." The agenda pledges long-term support for education, with a commitment to expand support for Pell Grants and related programs. But that's about it. Is it any surprise that even loyal Democratic voters are now wondering where the Democratic Party stands on these issues?

In fact, once we get beyond Iraq, the disconnect in the national Democratic Party and what's happening where we live is glaring. In Philadelphia -- as is the case in many communities -- we continue to wrestle with failing schools, decaying infrastructure, rising crime, and the lack of affordable housing. Unfortunately, the forgone conclusion is that we can't expect any real help from Washington in responding to them. The result? Voters here are far more interested in who's running for mayor next year than any of the congressional campaigns --including Santorum versus Casey. It got to the point in September where an anti-Santorum group had to plead publicly with mayoral candidates to suspend their fund-raising until November.

Democratic congressional candidates are paying a potential political price for this negligence as well. While Democratic candidates are saying next to nothing about budget cuts, Republican incumbents are trumpeting the various federal grants they're able to produce for their districts. In Pennsylvania's 6th congressional district, where Lois Murphy is trying to unseat incumbent Republican Joe Gerlach, the latter lists every single grant he's brought to his district for the past three years on his campaign web site -- including some from programs he has later voted to cut. It's cute, but in the current environment, people are grateful for his efforts, since they know that these programs are disappearing. He may be helping to sink the ship, but they're thankful for the life rafts he throws out along the way.

"All politics is local," the saying goes, but that doesn't mean that only constituent services matter. It means that a candidate should be able convey both the local impact of national problems and the national implications of local problems. Conservative Republicans do well in this area. Gay marriage in New York leads to a Constitutional amendment on Capital Hill. Proposed federal changes in immigration trigger local immigration wars all over the United States.

Nothing like this is happening on the other side. Locally, Democratic mayors and governors are struggling with how to promote jobs, affordable housing, safe streets, and better schools. Nationally, beyond Iraq, Democratic candidates are talking about the 9/11 report, stem cell research, and fiscal responsibility. Do these groups even sound much like members of the same political party ?

There is still an opportunity for citizens to force these issues to the fore between now and November 7. If those who are fed up with the relentless federal disinvestment from our communities start pushing the press in these closing days of the campaign to ask candidates how they will vote -- or would vote -- on the 2007 federal budget presently working its way through Congress, that could well focus serious attention on these issues. The president is now trumpeting the success of the 2006 budget in reducing the deficit. The 2007 budget incorporates all of the cutbacks in the 2006 budget and more. It implements the sizeable cuts in the student loan program and Medicaid that were adopted by Congress last year. So how will Republican incumbents vote on the budget -- for or against? What would their Democratic challengers do? Posing such questions may not give us any final answers about the direction of our country and the prospects for rolling back the disinvestment of the Bush years, but it's a good place to start.

Ed Schwartz is President of the Institute for the Study of Civic Values in Philadelphia who served as City Councilman-at-Large in the 1980's and directed Philadelphia's Office of Housing and Community Development for 4 1/2 years. He manages the bushbudget.com web site.

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