Spence Perry: When cutting budgets, discretion is necessary

October 12, 2011|By SPENCE PERRY

The public prints tell us it is budget cutting time: federal, state, local, special authority — all cut, cut, cut! There are enough pieces of budget cutting cutlery to start a Saturday night fight in a roadhouse.

Those who might be affected by this actually now look nervously over their shoulders and wonder when the scythe will come for them or their programs.

Such anxiety is premature. After years of waiting for post-cut scorched earth to appear, I can assure you that the outcome will not be so bad after all.

First of all, the final results of budget cutting are never as draconian as they first promise to be. I think of the 80’s, when a colleague, one of our finest career civil servants, following the guidance of his political masters in the Reagan administration, worked for several years to get rid of Amtrak’s dining cars.

Ray had color charts, video presentations and eloquent briefings in support of his views. We argued about his cause repeatedly. Finally I told him, “Ray, the dining cars are one of the few things the federal government does for me that I like.”

Evidently, there were a lot of other folks who felt the same way. The dining cars are still around, and the food is better. I suspect they will be up for grabs again but I will also bet you can get a pretty good New York strip on the Silver Meteor a couple of years from now.

Budget cutting can actually do some good, even for those who initially quail before the blade. There are programs that need to be eliminated or cut. (Remember the postal savings systems, the High School Naval Reserve Officers Training Program or the natural feather down stockpile?)

Programs of this kind are more likely to be discovered and eviscerated in a formal budget cutting exercise than in the everyday appropriations process.

Budget cutting can also serve a more vigorous form of program review. Often, hard-pressed officials can come up with more efficient ways to do things when their backs are to the wall. This has been particularly true in the age of the computer and fast, distinct communication. (Remember when the post office and local taxing authorities only accepted cash, or were only open during normal business hours?)

So budget cutting, at all levels of government (and in the private sector as well) is a useful and, by no means, entirely negative exercise. However, this is only true if care, judgment and discretion are employed.

Jack the Ripper has no place in budget cutting. If he does become involved, we will lose things we do not want to lose and do not need to lose.

A case in point are the “blue coats.”

The Speakers of the House (Mr. Boehner) and the House Minority Leader (Ms. Pelosi) recently decided off the floor of the house to do away with the Congressional Page Service (CPS) as a money-saving ploy.

This group of roughly 30 young men and women, wearing blue blazers (hence the nickname), has served the House since the days of the Continental Congress. The work of the pages was important and will be missed. It went far beyond the delivering of messages for members.

For the young students (grades nine to 12), CPA offered an unequaled chance to learn about government firsthand. They could talk to Everett Dirkson about the post-war rise of the Republican Party, to Sam Rayburn about Texas policies or to Gerald Ford about the speakership. On a particularly memorable morning, they might be greeted by name and given an autographed copy of “Profiles in Courage” by a future president.

For most CPS students, their Hill experience represented their first chance to meet and work with a wide variety of young people from all over the nation.

The cost has been disputed, but it cannot have been huge. CPS alumni are remarkably successful at what they choose to do (and many choose public service). But even so, two of their members offered to permanently endow the CPS program, an offer that was refused.

Perhaps it was not cost that offended the real rationale for the program’s execution. Some observers believe that the presence of so many able, idealistic and enthusiastic young people was somewhat intimidating to their political masters.

In any case, this sad tale should remind us that those who we entrust to do budget cutting at every hand should not know the price of everything and the values of nothing.

Spence Perry lives in Fulton County, Pa., and is active in Washington County affairs. He was a House page in the 1958-59 Congress.

The Herald-Mail Articles