04/06/2011 01:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2011

Prioritizing the Federal Budget

It's one of the most important jobs of the Congress and the president: come up with a plan for financing the operations of government. The administration and the Hill have to figure out how to raise the money -- who to tax and how much -- then spend it.

One of the most persistent and irritating parts of the modern debate over taxation and spending is the feigned surprise and sputtering anger over the tax code and the federal budget. How, our political class asks, did things ever get that way? How did we end up spending so much money, on so many things, for so long? How did the tax code ever come to stretch for thousands of pages of tiny type? How did paying the interest on the federal debt ever become one of the single largest expenses of the national government?

Well, dear elected officials, you did it. Every line of the tax code. Every item in the federal budget. The appropriations that pay the salary of every one of those thousands of "federal bureaucrats" you speak of with such disdain were passed by the Congress and signed by the president.

Yet here we are, nine months into the fiscal year, still arguing over a spending plan for 2010-11, and heading into another mud wrestling match over how to raise it and spend it for 2011-12.

We spent an installment of Destination Casa Blanca chewing over the federal budget, federal priorities, and how the zeal to cut spending was going to effect millions of Latinos.

Though members of Congress from both parties exclaim that sure, everything's on the table, including defense spending, don't be surprised if the Department of Defense does take a few hits but the preponderance of cuts come elsewhere. Republican plans for the coming decade feature more than six trillion dollars in cuts, including massive restructuring of Medicaid, the health care plan for low-income Americans. The state-federal partnership that pays for treatment is burdening states already reeling from declining revenues and exploding obligations.

This week's panel bemoaned the threatened cuts, questioned the necessity for them, and promised bad outcomes for low-income and minority citizens. The idea that spending couldn't be sustained at current levels found little acceptance with the panel. Working class people, they maintained, were going to suffer more than the wealthy, as they already do.

The panel may be right. They may also be pushing back on a strong public sentiment that government is too big, collects too much money, and tries to do too many things only to do them badly. That public sentiment may reflect the truly perilous state of government finances at all levels, city, county, state and federal. What it doesn't take into account, however, is the reality that hundreds of thousands of jobs may hinge on continued high level of public spending. At a time when there are five job-seekers for every job, the notion that these newly unemployed will simply shift to the private sector is hard to imagine.

Latinos are making less money than other Americans. Their family income is buttressed by having more adults in the household working, and working more hours. They depend heavily on public services... schools, transportation, housing, social services, and help like small business loans. Republicans wondering how they might do better with the growing Latino vote in future election cycles might keep this in mind as they consider the consequences of proposing massive cuts in public spending. Social conservatives dream of Latinos as Future Republicans, without dealing with their continued reliance on government support.

Governments can't spend money they don't have forever. That's true. It's also true that the most vulnerable Americans have few others options to replace the help they get from public sources. Tough choices are going to be made in the very near future. I hope we won't continue to pretend that the tax code and the federal budget are not creations of the United States Congress, so that today's members can fume and posture and pretend that somebody else made it all this way.

The Democrats are hoping to avoid deep cuts in social services until the economy has moved further toward recovery. They may not get that choice... and the budget battles of 2011 may set the table for the 2012 election season in ways both big parties can't control.

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