How To Solve All Our Budget Fights, Forever

That title was long enough, but it really should have also had “by Grace Slick” at the end of it. Because she is the budgetary and political genius I’m basing this column on (and no, I’m not kidding). I also should warn, up front (for those considering fleeing for the exits already), that I’m not even going to talk about deficits, which is a somewhat separate problem. So all you folks ready to pen “But what about the deficits?” comments, be warned that I’m not even going to address that problem herein.

OK, anyone still left reading? Here we go. Every year, Congress is supposed to pass a federal budget. This budget “pie” is sliced up between all the different federal agencies, for all the things the federal government does. The House of Representatives and the Senate (and the politicians within), haggle and struggle over what dollars should go where.

I saw a headline in my newspaper this morning which exemplifies this fight: “House Republicans consider reductions in food stamps to save military spending.” This is actually a very old argument, and used to (in post-WWII times) be framed as: “guns or butter.” Spending on social problems like feeding the hungry versus funding the military-industrial complex — a clear choice. While this is merely the most stark choice in the budgetary fighting, such decisions are the heart of the battle — weighing one program or agency against another, and deciding how much money each will get.

This is where Grace Slick comes in, because while I’ve also been a believer of this plan, she states it better than I could, from her autobiography Somebody to Love?

The political system I’m in favour of has no name. It’s based — not in a lip-service way but in a real way — on the concept of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Remember that old slogan? In my perfect world, the government would send each of us a book filled with all the possible things that can be facilitated by our tax dollars and we’d choose our favourites.

Imagine such a radical idea: after filling out your tax form, you then filled in a separate form. Say you paid $5,000 in income taxes last year. You’d then allocate that money as you saw fit, dollar by dollar, among the budget line items you chose. Slick has a list of such possibilities, which starts off with reasonable things like “Anything military” and “Anything peaceful” and “National parks,” but (being Slick) also includes such things as “Shoe lifts for short senators” and “Free medical attention for carnivorous plants.” Heh.

Slick continues (after providing a pie chart of her own, as an example of how she might split her money up):

Once the computer finished its number crunching, we’d know exactly what the majority wanted. In the above figure. representing the current political setup, shoe lifts get top priority while old people get the shaft. My suggestion is, why not simplify the tax forms and find out what U.S. citizens really want? Surely we’ve learned by now that the democratic process is thwarted by representatives’ questionable motives and by a lack of trust on the part of citizens themselves.

Of course, the list would be more serious than that. Perhaps a list of every federal cabinet department, for those who wanted the easy way to allocate; or a more extensive list of all the federal agencies down to the smallest, for those who wanted to get into the nuts-and-bolts.

What would I allocate my tax dollars for, under such a scheme? Well, that would take some thought. The National Park System would certainly be high on my list, as would the Interstate Highway System and NASA. But I’d have to see a breakdown of all the relevant agencies to really divvy up my precious tax dollars.

The idea is that whatever is most important to you would be what got your money — whether that was the Pentagon, the National Endowment for the Arts, women’s health services, the Department of Homeland Security, whatever….

This would be a true national referendum on what the government should do, and how much each department would get (Social Security — as is true now — would be separate from this budget, I should mention).

How would the budget pie look after such a fiscal plebiscite? I truly have no idea. Would either Pentagon or social spending increase or decrease? No clue. Would the National Park System get more money? Well, I’d bet that it would, but that’s really just a gut feeling on my part.

At the very least, it would be a fascinating survey for some enterprising social science (or statistics) graduate student to tackle for a project. Conduct a poll of at least 10,000 taxpayers in all parts of the country. Ask them to say (anonymously) roughly how much in income taxes they pay, and what they’d choose to spend it on. I guarantee one thing: the results would hold some surprises for everyone — no matter where your political beliefs fall on the spectrum.

Of course, I don’t see this happening any time soon. Legally, it would probably take a constitutional amendment to wrest the “power of the purse” away from Congress. Slick realises this:

Now you may ask: Has any large-scale “government” — U.S.A. or other — ever given this much autonomy to its constituents? No. Which is why this pie-in-the-face routine would need the overwhelming support of the people to be implemented.

One thing is for certain — although this proposal doesn’t even address the deficit side of the equation, it would certainly solve the budget battles in Congress, forever. We would never see a “guns or butter” headline ever again about the House of Representatives, or the Senate. Call it a post-Tax Day fantasy, if you will. But I’d truly be interested in the data even an academic survey would provide on the fundamental question: What government, specifically, are Americans actually willing to pay for?


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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