What we value, what’s affordable

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Trump’s budget is a shocker, but at least it starts an overdue conversation.

THERE’S AN OLD SAYING that seems applicable: “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

Here’s another perspective, in 2013, from U.S. Marine Gen. James Mattis before he retired and became President Trump’s defense secretary: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

The Trump administration’s first foray into federal budgeting is like nothing anyone has seen in living memory. The nearly 30 percent cut for the State Department leaps out, but it’s hardly the only agency targeted for deep spending reductions. Diplomacy, at least theoretically, is how countries avoid shooting wars with other nations. Thus, the Mattis comment about a “need to buy more ammunition.”

OTHER PROPOSED CUTS also raised a lot of eyebrows inside and outside Washington:

• The Environmental Protection Agency would get a 31.4 percent cut.

• The Department of Labor would be cut by 20.7 percent.

• The Department of Agriculture would get 20.7 percent less money.

• The National Institutes of Health would be cut 20 percent.

• At Health and Human Services there would be a reduction of 16.2 percent.

• The Department of Commerce would be reduced by 15.7 percent.

• At the Department of Education it would a 13.5 percent cut.

• The Department of Housing and Urban Development would get 13.2 percent less.

• The Department of Transportation would be cut 12.7 percent.

• The Department of the Interior would lose 11.7 percent.

Some programs would be entirely eliminated, such as the National Endowment for the Arts. Popular programs like Meals on Wheels and after-school meals for poor students would be jeopardized.

Other key funds eliminated would include U.S. contributions to the United Nations’ climate change efforts and Agriculture’s grant program to municipalities for water and wastewater programs. FEMA grants to state and local programs would be cut by nearly $700 million.

NOW, THIS IS a good time to pause and take a breath. Conservatives, and on this score we count ourselves in that camp, long have wanted leaner, smaller government that spends less of the taxpayers’ money. Getting smaller means tightening budgets and forcing a bloated bureaucracy to get outside its comfort zone in order to increase efficiencies.

So we encourage both citizens and government decision-makers to hear with a degree of skepticism the howls of protest sure to follow this budget plan. There will be sky-is-falling lamentations arguing people will die, freezing and starving, and air and water will be fouled, and sickness will sweep the land, and public parks will be destroyed, and ... well, we get the picture.

Our view always has been this: A caring society should meet needs for those who can not do for themselves, but has few obligations for people who will not do for themselves.

CHANGE WILL COME HARD from a culture accustomed to always getting more. The bureaucracy has never understood or accepted that out here in the real world, more isn’t always an option.

Most American citizens and American companies are used to making tough choices in difficult times, carving out the marginal to preserve the core. That’s what government has needed to do for a very long time.

Government managers never will do it voluntarily. Politicians of both parties aid and abet the situation by catering to whatever sacred cows exist for their respective bases. But if smaller government ever is to be realized the issue must be forced by tightening pursestrings. It’s impossible to achieve government efficiencies without a fight because every dollar has a constituency.

STILL, THIS IS CRUCIAL: Funding cuts must be smart. It’s yet to be shown whether the Trump plan meets that criteria.

At first glance it appears general government is being hit hard in order to free up money that then will be dropped into big increases for defense and homeland security.

Let’s just say we don’t trust the Pentagon much more than we trust the welfare state when it comes to wisely spending dollars. Consider: In 2014 the Pentagon spent $610 billion on defense. That’s 34 percent of all defense spending worldwide. The United States spends more on the military than the next eight countries combined and most of those other countries are allies.

Just taking dollars from other governmental functions in order to fatten the defense checkbook does not make a convincing argument. Truth is, the Pentagon may be the best known agency of government when it comes to squandering money on costly overruns and weapons no one needs or wants.

Besides, shuffling dollars does not equate to smaller government when more money actually is still being spent. Budgets reflect values. This budget values hard power and scorns domestic programs. The people can decide if that’s what they want.

GIVE TRUMP THIS: He is willing to send a budget document up to Capitol Hill guaranteed to start a melee.

Good. America needs a budget melee. For years Congress has abdicated its constitutional responsibility. The Constitution says all fiscal measures must originate in the House of Representatives, be approved by Congress and then go to the President for a signature. But Congress has not passed a budget in years, relying instead on continuing resolutions. That’s chickening out of making decisions.

So Trump has thrown Congress a challenge, to reimagine and redefine the federal structure.

About time. Let’s have a national debate on values and what we can afford.

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