CONGRESS VOTED earlier this year to trim $35 billion in entitlement spending over the next five years. House Republican leaders want to bump up that number to $50 billion -- supposedly to deal with the costs of Hurricane Katrina. But don't be bamboozled by the self-satisfied claims of fiscal discipline you'll hear from those pressing these cuts: Their post-Katrina budget plan would add to the deficit, not reduce it.
That's because the required spending cuts don't come close to paying for the at least $70 billion in new tax cuts provided for in the budget -- cuts that mostly benefit the wealthiest Americans and that apparently remain sacrosanct, no matter what expenses pile up. Meantime, the spending cuts, if approved, would probably come primarily from programs for the poor -- such as Medicaid, food stamps, child-care support, the earned-income tax credit and Supplemental Security Income.
So a hurricane that exposed the disturbing problems of poverty in America could end up providing the justification to make even deeper cuts in the programs that provide an essential safety net for the poor. It's a welcome sign that the leadership, facing resistance from some in their ranks, yesterday called off a planned vote to require the extra cuts, but that's not the end of the story: Committee chairmen will still be pressed to make the trims.
Getting control over growth in the mandatory spending programs that make up an increasing share of the federal budget isn't just a good idea; it is, in the end, a necessity. But it has to be done in a balanced way that puts the totality of the federal budget on the table -- not just programs that lack high-priced lobbyists or entrenched constituencies. If entitlement spending is on the table, why only programs for the poor and not more broad-based entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security? Even better, why not start with the subsidies for wealthy farmers instead of food stamp spending that provides recipients with less than $1 per meal? The House Republican plan calls for shared sacrifice -- but most of the sacrificing will be done by the poor.