On CNN yesterday, in discussing the budget, Colin Powell said that “the real money [is] in the entitlements … and unless we do something about those, you can’t balance the budget.” He added, “You can’t fix the deficit or the national debt by killing NPR or National Endowment for the Humanities or the Arts. Nice political chatter, but that doesn’t do it.” And then, putting on his David Stockman cape, Powell said: “Don’t tell me you’re going to freeze to a level. That usually is a very inefficient way of doing it. Tell me what you’re going to cut, and nobody up there yet is being very, very candid about what they are going to cut to fix this problem.”
Secretary Powell is quite right that entitlement programs are where the real money is. And Powell is also correct when he says that you can’t fix the deficit or the national debt by killing NPR or the NEA. Of course, the former secretary of state can’t name a single influential Republican figure who has made such a claim.
The case against NPR and the NEA isn’t that they absorb a huge percentage of federal dollars; it is that they are undeserving of taxpayer money. They don’t have a legitimate claim on public funds. Why should NPR get taxpayer subsidies when no other news outlet does? And why should the federal government be subsidizing such a thing in the first place? Does anyone really believe Diane Rehm or Terry Gross are national treasures who merit taxpayer support?
Beyond that, symbolism matters. Having the House cuts its own budget won’t fix our fiscal imbalance either — but it’s still a worthwhile thing to do, both symbolically and on the merits.
Finally, Powell wants to know specifically what Republicans are going to cut. To which I would say: Patience, Mr. Secretary, patience. In just a matter of months, Representative Paul Ryan is going to produce a detailed budget, and his colleagues on the appropriations committee are going to list specific programs they want to cut. This will cause official Washington to shriek in protest, even though those cuts by themselves won’t be nearly enough. But it will be a start.
I hope conservative lawmakers can count on Powell’s support rather than criticism once they gin up the courage and do what Powell is now demanding of them. As this drama unfolds, will he be arguing for fiscal discipline and limited government — or will he try to ward off cuts in his favorite programs?
I would be delighted — and frankly surprised — if Secretary Powell ends up being a strong, visible ally of genuine budget cutters. But here’s to hoping.