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A balanced budget with balanced priorities

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By The Staff

Americans are calling for a new direction, and Democrats in Congress are delivering. This month, we passed a plan to balance the budget by 2012.

When President George Bush took office seven years ago, we presented him an advantage that few presidents have ever enjoyed: a budget in surplus by $236 billion. His economists looked out 10 years and saw nothing but surpluses, $5.6 trillion in all.

Democrats warned against betting the budget on a blue-sky forecast, but President Bush insisted we could have it all – guns, butter and tax cuts, too – and never mind the deficits, we would actually pay down the debt.

Well, by 2003, the surplus was gone, and by 2004, it was replaced by a record deficit, $413 billion. Under the policies of the Bush administration our national debt has exploded, growing by 80 percent from $5.7 trillion in 2001 to $10 trillion in 2009.

Faced with these grim facts, what does the president’s budget for next year propose? More of the same and a mountain of debt.

The budget the Democrats recently passed charts a new course. It restrains spending and sticks to the rule of pay-as-you-go, but supports investments in energy, education and infrastructure. And it returns the budget to balance in 2012, with a surplus of $22 billion. We use some of that and subsequent surpluses to offset $340 billion in tax reduction for middle-income Americans.

Our budget begins by undoing the damage done by the president’s budget to services that people depend upon.

Take Medicare and Medicaid, for example. The president wants to cut Medicare by $479 billion over 10 years and Medicaid by $94 billion. We reject those cuts and broaden the Children’s Health Insurance Program to reach millions of children who are eligible but are not yet enrolled.

Over the next five years, the president wants to impose more than $18 billion in new fees on military retirees and veterans. We reject those fees and add nearly $5 billion in new funding to the VA health care system in 2009 alone.

The President even cuts education, training and employment, not only next year, but for five years, by $33 billion. Our budget rejects the president’s cuts, and in particular, his elimination of 47 educational programs. We instead make significant increases in education, training and employment services.

Our budget supports investment not just in education, but in research and development, in science and innovation, including, for example, more for the National Institutes of Health, which the president actually cuts, and the National Science Foundation. We want the United States to remain the leader – the global leader – in science and innovation.

This country faces an energy deficit as well as a budget deficit. Read the president’s budget and you will find little to address skyrocketing energy costs, or renewable energy, or clean fuel technology, or conservation and efficiency. What you will find are heavy hits on home energy assistance for low-income families – the one program that helps families heat their homes in winter and cool them in summer. The president cuts deeply into that program; we raise funds well above his request. As for funding for alternative fuels, renewable energies, and other energy initiatives, our budget provides $7.7 billion.

As I mentioned earlier, this budget agreement extends tax relief to middle-income families. We shelter 20 million households from the Alternative Minimum Tax. We also support renewal of the extension of the middle-income tax cuts, such as the child tax credit, the marriage penalty relief provisions and the 10 percent tax bracket.

In the all-important realm of national security, we match the president’s request, but we call for better stewardship and new priorities, including more to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and materials, which may be the most menacing threat we face.

We actually do more than the president to safeguard the homeland and internal security, because we reverse his misguided cuts in local law enforcement and in funds for firefighters and other first responders.

The federal budget is like a battleship, badly off course. We cannot steer it to balance overnight, but we are moving it in that direction, applying fiscal discipline, but not at the expense of the values and priorities that we as Democrats hold dear.

U.S. Rep. John Spratt (D-SC) is chairman of the House Budget Committee.