February 15, 1996

February 15, 1996 | Commentary on Federal Budget

ED021596: Why The Budget Debate Matters

CBO, OMB, baseline budgeting, reductions in the rate of growth. To most Americans the budget battle between Congress and the White House has been impenetrable, a duel over accounting methods "explained" in acronyms only the initiated can understand. No wonder many Americans are tuning out, or worse, focusing on the only part of the debate they can grasp -- the partisan sniping.

This is a shame. The budget debate is the most important political discussion this nation has had in a generation -- a debate over what kind of country we want the United States to be. On one side are those who want the federal government to possess unlimited resources, the better to fix every conceivable social problem the country might face. For debate purposes, these are the liberals. On the other side are those who believe the federal government's power should be strictly limited, the better to preserve personal freedom and allow individuals to keep what they earn. These are the conservatives.

The budget is the battlefield on which these two visions for America clash, and no issue highlights the divide between these two camps more boldly than taxes.

For conservatives, the tax issue boils down to one simple question: Whose money is it anyway? If, as conservatives believe, the money people earn belongs to them, then taxes should be kept as low as possible. Which means current tax rates need to be cut.

Liberals focus on a different question: How will tax cuts affect Treasury receipts? The measure of tax "fairness" is not whether Americans are forced to pay too much, but whether the government has all the "revenue" it needs to run its myriad social programs. In this view, the American people not only have a duty to pay steep taxes, but should feel honored for the opportunity to help create utopia right here in the United States.

Or take another hot-button issue: welfare. The debate is not about "ending welfare as we know it," as the president vowed to do during the 1992 campaign. In truth, we all want to end welfare as we know it: liberals, by increasing spending on a variety of programs that, after the Great Society's many failures, will finally (they hope) replace welfare with work; conservatives, by spending less and weaning people off their dependence on "compassionate" government.

On foreign policy, the budget debate casts into stark relief serious differences over America's role in the world. It's probably true, as liberals claim, that they do not view America as the world's policeman. In reality it's worse: They view America as an international welfare agency whose social workers (read: soldiers) can and should criss-cross the globe doing good deeds like keeping peace and building nations.

None of this is said to disparage liberals as people. With the best intentions they have guided -- or misguided -- our national policies for the better part of the 20th century. But now liberalism is choking on its own political success. It's overarching goal -- a vast federal government mobilized to redress all social ills -- has been achieved, but at the cost of almost $80,000 in public debt for every family in America.

Despite its continuing failure at the polls, liberalism refuses to go quietly. In the current budget battle, liberals have ruthlessly employed the only weapons remaining in their arsenal: fear and distortion. For example, the proposed Republican balanced budget calls for a 7 percent annual increase in Medicare spending; liberals portray this as a "cruel" cut. GOP efforts to return power and responsibility to the states are portrayed as a secret scheme to kill school lunches or hurt the poor. And plans to rein in the spiraling costs of Medicare, which is heading for bankruptcy as sure as this is 1996, is depicted as an attempt to deny health-care benefits to the elderly.

It is that kind of misrepresentation that betrays the fatigue liberalism is feeling these days. It has no new ideas to offer, no agenda other than preserving the status quo. For this reason the current budget battle may very well be one of the last debates in which 1960s-style liberalism even has a voice.

Note: This essay by Edwin J. Feulner,Ph.D., president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, is adapted from his latest annual essay on "The State of Conservatism."

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office