Ah, the hot topic of budgets.
Unless you work in your company's finance department, odds are the word makes your eyes glaze over.
But for the parallel universe contained inside the Beltway, and for the watchdog groups monitoring it, budgets are a different story. For those people, things are just getting interesting.
Two weeks ago, one such group --- the local chapter of MoveOn.org --- staged a protest in Fairport near freshman Congressman Randy Kuhl's office. The event, which drew about 30 participants, focused squarely on the budget Kuhl and his fellow lawmakers were considering.
"We're asking him to vote against the budget resolution," explained Rome Celli, who emceed the event, "and we're asking him to vote against the companion bill for tax cuts." Each of the speakers Celli introduced castigated parts of the $50 billion in spending cuts proposed by Republican House of Representatives leadership. Summing up those speakers, Celli said, "That budget will cut back on food stamps, affordable housing, student loans and apparently quite a bit more than that."
But later that week, the House approved the cuts, and among the 'yes' votes was Randy Kuhl's.
Before the vote, Washington pundits said Republican leaders would hold open the vote until they had enough of their own party aboard. Apparently they held it open that long and no longer; the bill passed by the slimmest of margins: 217 to 215.
Among the Republican Congressmen voting for the measure were all three whose districts reach into MonroeCounty. An Associated Press report the following day said moderate Republicans had held out for some concessions. The news agency singled out Syracuse's John Walsh, whose district includes Webster and parts of Penfield and Irondequoit: "The biggest concession came Thursday evening," said the AP report, "when Walsh won language permitting food stamp recipients making the transition to work to continue to be able to receive non-cash benefits for child care, transportation, and housing without losing their nutrition benefits."
Walsh spokesperson Dan Gage told City Newspaper that Walsh "was part of a group of moderates who are uncomfortable with some things."
Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and cuts to food stamps were among them. Walsh believes Congress shouldn't be "destroying that welfare-to-work bridge they created during welfare reform a few years ago," said Gage.
Randy Kuhl's role in shaping the cuts is less clear. Spokesperson Brian Fitzpatrick dismissed the word "cut," since he says spending in areas affected will still grow, just not at the expected rate.
"Only in Washington is less more considered a cut," he said, adding that the reduction "was less than one-tenth of one percent of the growth that will occur anyway."
Asked what concessions Kuhl had demanded in exchange for his vote, Fitzpatrick mentioned only a 50 percent increase in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
But since Kuhl sits on the education committee, he also was involved in what's become a controversial part of the cuts package: financial aid for students.
Just shy of $15 billion was chopped from government spending on student loans. But Fitzpatrick downplayed the notion that the changes might affect students' ability to attend college:
"Any reduction is aimed at the lending community, not the students," he said. Lenders are profiting off government subsidies meant to help students, said Fitzpatrick, and these changes try to stop that. An education-committee report he supplied to City backs up that assertion. The report says government subsidies ensure that lenders get a "fair market return," yet when rates exceed fair market levels, lenders pocket the difference. Forcing them to return those extra profits could save $5 billion a year.
But not everyone is willing to accept the rhetoric that the changes aren't hurting students.
Louise Slaughter spokesperson Eric Burns argues that they're still a cut, because of how such funding streams are supposed to work.
"They're designed to keep up with inflation," he says. "What they're essentially doing is they're cutting the program."
His litmus test for what constitutes a cut? "It will actually result in service cuts," he says.
Like every House Democrat, Slaughter voted against the bill. But she objects even more vigorously to companion legislation, which has yet to pass: a package of about $56 billion in tax cuts, mainly for the wealthy. It hasn't escaped Democrats' notice that despite the propagandist nickname Republicans gave the spending-cuts package (they call it the "Deficit Reduction Act"), it saves less money than the tax breaks give away.
"They're actually increasing the deficit by 6 or 7 billion dollars," says Burns.
In her speech on the House floor, a copy of which was provided to City, Slaughter had stronger words:
"This is an outright deception," she said. "Where I grew up we had another name for it; it was called a lie." And the timing of the votes, separated by the holidays, was no accident, she charged.
"The Majority deliberately chose to separate this bill from its planned passage of $56 billion in tax cuts for the rich, more than half of which goes to the super rich --- those with incomes over a million dollars per year," said Slaughter. According to her office, 1 percent of the tax cuts affect those making below $40,000 a year.
Early this week, with lawmakers on recess, no action had been taken on the tax breaks. But despite turmoil among House Republicans, activist groups may have a tough time blocking the bill's passage. At least they'll have allies like Slaughter, who summed up her opposition saying the budget was created specifically to "cut vital programs and increase the national debt in order to create tax cuts for the rich and the super rich.
"I and many of my colleagues in this body, both Republican and Democrat, see nothing at all responsible about this agenda," said Slaughter. "And neither will the majority of the American people."