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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Leadership by Elected Representatives: Transcending the Politics of Slashing Vulnerable Federal Programs and Avoiding Tax Increases

On January 20, 2011, months before the Republicans would use leverage of a baleful debt-ceiling-default to extract additional cuts, the Republican Study Committee (RSC)—a group of fiscally conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives—announced a plan by which $2.5 trillion could be cut from the U.S. Government's spending over ten years. According to The New York Times, the proposed cuts “would exclude the military, and would not touch the big entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security. As a result, [their] effect on the entire array of government programs, among them education, domestic security, transportation, law enforcement and medical research, would be nothing short of drastic." The leaders of the RSC claimed that the cuts were “appropriate and necessary, given the government’s $14 trillion debt and annual deficits at their highest levels since the years just after World War II." The RSC "proposed generally reducing agency budgets to their levels in 2006 — the last time Congressional Republicans controlled the budget process — and then freezing them, with no annual inflation adjustments.” The RSC also recommended “slashing the federal workforce by 15 percent and canceling pay raises for five years, for a total of $2.29 trillion in savings.” Finally, the proposal included “an additional $330 billion in cuts to specific programs, including Amtrak, foreign aid and even the Washington subway system" (Source #1).


Back in July 2009, The New York Times reported that most Americans continued to want "the federal government to focus on reducing the budget deficit rather than spending money to stimulate the national economy" (Source #2). Nevertheless, Congress and the President went ahead in 2010 with extending the Bush tax cuts, which were expected to add an expected $850 billion to the deficits of 2011 and 2012. The President had proposed to extend the tax cuts for the lower and middle classes, which would be more apt to spend rather than save the difference and thus stimulate the economy then in a weak, jobless recovery. The congressional Republican leadership demanded that the tax cuts be continued for the wealthy as well, even though the latter could afford to pay more in tax and would be less apt to spend than save the money from the cuts. If the proposed spending cuts were “necessary” given the sizes of the deficits and debt, it would seem that the tax cuts—even those likely to be spent and thus stimulating—would have been a luxury the U.S. Government could ill-afford. That is to say, the deficits and debt could play second fiddle to stimulating the economy, only to be the reasons for “necessary and appropriate cuts.”

Besides dovetailing with the Republican goal of less government—particularly at the federal level—the combination of tax cuts and budget cuts sends mixed signals as to the importance of the U.S. Governments deficits and accumulated debt. Within the proposed spending cuts alone, cutting in some areas while leaving others—notably defense—completely untouched sends similarly schizophrenic signals regarding the seriousness of the deficits and debt. If the financial affairs are perilous, the U.S. Government could ill-afford protecting defense contractors and other sacred cows.

To be sure, Americans polled overwhelmingly said that they prefer cutting government spending to paying higher taxes, according to The New York Times (Source #3). The RSC's proposal was in line with this finding. Also, the proposal was in line with the poll's finding that nearly two-thirds of Americans do not want Medicare or Social Security benefits cut even to reduce deficits. At the same time, unlike the RSC’s proposal, the poll indicated that Americans by a wide margin preferred cutting the Pentagon's budget to cutting benefits in Medicare and Social Security; the RSC proposal treats all three areas the same (leaving them all off the chopping block).

However, those who are led by polls cannot lead, for leading involves moving the polled rather than being moved by them. Furthermore, the citizenry may not have fully aware of how serious deficits of over $1 trillion and a debt of over $14 trillion are to the viability of the United States. The seriousness of the deficits and debt require tax increases and spending cuts (including sacred cows) even if the general populous is not much bothered by the threat.

Representatives have to use judgment to know when to be agents reflecting the will of the people who sent them and when to lead constituents who sent them but would view the indebtedness as more precarious had they studied the matter more fully. In other words, elected representatives sometimes need to be critical of what their constituents think is in their true interest and that of the United States as a viable system. As faithful agents, representatives must look in such cases to the best interest of their district and to the United States as a viable concern. Going beyond polls, leaders are oriented to protecting the led even from themselves.


1.      David M. Herszenhorn, “G.O.P. Bloc Presses Leaders to Slash Even More,” The New York Times, January 20, 2011.
2.      Dalia Sussman, “New Poll: Bring Down Debt, Don’t Spend More,” The New York Times, July 29, 2009.
3.      Jackie Calmes and Dallia Sussman, "Poll Finds a Willingness to Cut Spending, Just not Medicare or Social Security," The New York Times, January 21, 2011, p. A11.