Restoring the balance

Proposed federal budget shifts surpluses in trust funds to areas where they weren't meant to goPresident Clinton is sending the single most political document of his tenure in office to Congress for review and consent: the federal budget.In general, the public is unaware of the specific trade-offs made in putting this budget together. And although it does indicate what will be funded, the budget doesn't

Proposed federal budget shifts surpluses in trust funds to areas where they weren't meant to go

President Clinton is sending the single most political document of his tenure in office to Congress for review and consent: the federal budget.

In general, the public is unaware of the specific trade-offs made in putting this budget together. And although it does indicate what will be funded, the budget doesn't always provide full disclosure as to how things will be funded.

Sometimes the public is led to believe there are budget surpluses when there are not.

In the current budget, for example, monies from the Highway Trust Fund and Social Security are used to pay for things that aren't related to these areas at all.

To say that a budget is balanced when funds are actually being diverted from "legislated intent" is like telling the American people that laws will be passed to satisfy them, but there is no intent to honor that legislation once it's enacted. The President isn't the only one sidestepping the intent of particular legislation; through its budget review and approval process, Congress plays the same game.

This scenario would not be quite so troublesome if the economic consequences were less dramatic. But as a percentage of total gross domestic product (GDP), the funds controlled by the federal government are very near an all-time high.

If there is a real effort to balance the budget, it's happening in a manner that questions the resolve of those involved to make the impact of the budget clear, as well as the process itself.

Using the Highway Trust Fund as an example, let's see how obvious the process actually is. We'd probably all agree that it makes sense to set aside money for the future upkeep of our highways and bridges. We'd probably also agree that those who are going to use the highways and bridges should pay for maintaining them and building new ones.

Generating the funds to do this is not the problem. But once funding has been established, the government must determine how to spend it. This is where truly bizarre behavior takes place.

The budget spells out how the federal government intends to spend particular funds over time. Let's compare the intent of the current budget with the legislation that was passed to create the funding in the first place. In the example of the highway funds, it's no secret that in the current budget they've been used to reduce the federal deficit. Money collected for one purpose is being used to pay for something else.

Highway Trust Fund monies are being earmarked in part to support Amtrak, a national passenger rail service that is no longer "national" in coverage. In most areas, near-profitable commuter rail services are organized under local authority. Consequently, we have a national passenger rail service that can't support itself, and thus needs government subsidies to exist.

Using money set aside for highways to offset Amtrak losses merely funds a non-profitable operation with minimal economic benefit at the expense of properly maintaining the nation's infrastructure.

By stripping trust funds of their cash and substituting IOUs, the government circumvents the intent of the legislation, which was created in response to voter demands in the first place. In addition, money is being diverted to areas not supported by legislation or the majority of users, i.e., a national rail system.

Ignoring the needs of our infrastructure has a number of negative consequences on both the economy and the environment.

Traffic jams cut down on productivity, create pollution, and waste energy. The re-routing that results when roads and bridges are not maintained leads to decreases in productivity. And lack of transportation access hinders commercial development, and thus opportunities for economic growth.

Unfortunately, the only solution lies in the hands of those who so far see fit only to continue this wasteful charade of government.

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