Obama's Budget Calls For Spending Cuts

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President Obama sent his proposed 2012 budget to Capitol Hill today. Among other things, the president's plan calls for a freezing in domestic spending over the next five years. As cuts are considered, Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Representative Emanuel Cleaver wants to ensure that the country's most economically vulnerable communities are not forgotten. Cleaver gives host Michel Martin his take on the national budget proposals.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, to the budget. President Obama sent his proposed budget to Capitol Hill today. Among other things, the president's plan calls for a freeze in domestic discretionary spending over the next five years.

President BARACK OBAMA: It will mean cutting things that I care deeply about. For example, community action programs in low-income neighborhoods and towns. And Community Development Block Grants that so many of our cities and states rely on. But if we're going to walk the walk when it comes to fiscal discipline, these kinds of cuts will be necessary.

MARTIN: That was President Obama, of course, today talking about his budget for fiscal year 2012. He was actually visiting one of the budget winners, a middle school and technology center in Baltimore.

Here to give us his take on the budget and then talk about whatever else is on his mind, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver. He is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. And he joins us from member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. Thank you so much for joining us.

Representative EMANUEL CLEAVER (Democrat, Missouri): Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So, congressman, could you just give us your top line reaction to the president's proposed spending plan?

Rep. CLEAVER: Well, we knew it was going to be a tough budget. We knew that it was going to be painful. We think that the president tried desperately in this budget to reduce the amount of pain on the poor. I think, however, that we have a responsibility for protecting the vulnerable population. If you'll notice, there's very little discussion any place about - when the budget is discussed - about the poor. And I know that that's an unpopular word to use.

But let's think about this as we look at the budget or think about the budget. These are different times. These are not poor people with whom we have placed the stereotypical view, that is, you know, they don't want to work, they were sitting around driving Cadillacs and using taxpayer dollars. Because of the economy, people who are considered vulnerable are former police officers, firefighters, municipal workers, state workers who've been laid off because of the economy. And those are the people now who are out here in the vulnerable population.

The Community Development Block Grant, for example, which was created, incidentally, by that old liberal Gerald Ford, it is a program designed in 1974 that would provide an opportunity for local communities to decide how to spend dollars from Washington. That's about as conservative as you can get. And 70 percent of it would need to be spent in low to moderate income areas. But the cut that we are seeing from the president is 300 million.

And then LIHEAP, which is a program that I think we are going to regret if we cut, and that is the low-income home energy program that's primarily used to help with heating cost on the East Coast, although here in my district in Missouri, 165,000 Missouri households were beneficiaries of that fund.

MARTIN: Well, congressman, I take your point, but the president says that's not as conservative as you can get, actually. He says that he contrasts the administration's budgetary approach with that of House Republicans, who are voting this week to slash the current year's spending by much larger amounts, sparing few programs from cuts and increasing spending on no programs, even though the president does increase some spending on his priorities, which includes, you know, education. So what's your response to that?

Rep. CLEAVER: The president is absolutely right. The Republican version of the bill is a nervous breakdown on paper. And we absolutely, given the choice, are gonna embrace the president's budget. But we have a responsibility, I think, to push back in order to push forward the benefits that our constituents will receive. And they're not just African-Americans. They are minorities, but they are men and women around this country who are vulnerable because of the economy.

And so I do think that the president tried desperately to reduce the amount of pain. But until we are willing to go into the entitlements, all this other stuff is for show. And I understand why the president won't go into the entitlements because the Republicans are simply waiting around for him to talk about Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, to pounce on him and try to dissect the program in a way that would damage the president. So I--

MARTIN: Well, hold on a second, if I may, you know, I actually have a quote here from Speaker of the House, John Boehner, and he was on "Meet the Press" over the weekend and he said: Most Americans have not been presented with just how big is the problem. It's Social Security, it's Medicare, it's Medicaid - those are the entitlement programs you were talking about. And he says, I think it's incumbent on those leaders here in Washington, those of us to go out and help the American people understand how big the problem is.

I mean, I don't know how you interpret that, but it sounds to me as though he's saying that all public leaders have to be clear about really where the spending is.

Rep. CLEAVER: Well, two things. Number one, I agree with the speaker, Mr. Boehner. However, if Republicans viewed the election of last November 2nd as a mandate to change the spending habits of the federal government, then the Republicans ought to have the entitlements in their budget and they don't.

And the point I'm trying to make, perhaps poorly, is that they simply want the president to propose some dramatic changes in the entitlements so that they can pounce on him for political purposes.

So, I agree that Americans may not understand the depth of the problem. But it's also important for me to say that the budget means something. It is, I mean, the best thing to save for the future is the soul of the nation. And the budget of the United States should reflect who we are as a people.

MARTIN: To that end, though, the Congressional Black Caucus in years past has presented an alternative budget to the nation. This year, also, the CBC created its own budget commission. You brought together some of the country's top African-American economists to work on this. I think this was a response to the Deficit Reduction Commission. There were a couple high-powered panels that had been assembled by different groups including the White House to offer a long-term approach to reducing the nation's deficit. Tell me about what the Congressional Black Caucus was hoping to achieve with this exercise.

Rep. CLEAVER: Well, first of all, we did not want to just have an emotional reaction to the president's budget or to the Republican version of the budget. So we brought together these economists. We met with them. They have been working now for three weeks.

And tomorrow we will release their recommendations. And what they did was to look at budget recommendations, ways in which we can reduce the deficit without focusing our sharpest knives on the vulnerable population. They are going to recommend to us a course to travel where the safety net doesn't have a hole in it. And I think that they understand - these economists - that we have to have budget cuts. There's no question about it. Nobody's going to argue. I agree with the president. In fact, because we believe so strongly that the president is trying to moderate this pain, we're committed to his reelection just as strongly today as we were two years ago.

MARTIN: Well, those of you who are Democrats. You now have a Republican in your number for the first time in many years. So, presumably he has a different candidate. So, can you just give us any hint at all, Mr. Cleaver, about where the savings - an alternate source of savings that might be considered?

Rep. CLEAVER: Well, first of all, I think - when you hear people say non-security spending, they don't realize - many people hearing that don't realize that that includes federal aid to public schools. That includes money for the FBI. That includes money to programs that put police on the streets in most of our major urban cities where crime is a problem. So we think you don't go there.

But if people in Congress are courageous as they claimed to be this past November, then it means, you know, we raise the age of - before people are eligible for Social Security and perhaps even have some means testing so that the wealthy people of the country are not receiving Social Security.

MARTIN: OK. Well, we'll have to leave it there for now. We will look forward to future conversations and to the report that the caucus is delivering this week. Thank you so much for joining us.

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and he was with us from member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. Congressman Cleaver, thank you so much for joining us once again.

Rep. CLEAVER: Good to be with you.

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