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Dealing with the debt; Choices on budget cuts need to be more than just planks in a platform for 2012

Buffalo-Niagara has been given a new taste of fiscal discipline, courtesy of the House Republicans who held the federal government hostage so they might force through some budget cuts. The budget accord, which funds the federal government through Sept. 30, will not devastate the region. Yes, there will be less federal money for infrastructure improvements, home energy assistance for the needy, the high-speed rail system that is years from reality, and Community Development Block Grants. But the cuts do not appear to be so deep that they are a death knell for any single program.

Alas, it's not over. The Republicans continue to set Washington's agenda, over that of a president who appears more diminutive by the day. With a Democrat occupying the White House, the Republicans have seen the light on runaway federal spending, which they would have you believe occurs only during Democratic administrations. The previous Republican incumbent's free-wheeling ways and his willingness to abandon pay-as-you-go with a complicit Congress rarely get a mention.

The Republican leader of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, has been everywhere pushing his offensive against the unfathomably deep national debt, more than $14 trillion and counting. But just as the Republicans did in forcing their budget demands -- threatening to cripple the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to enforce the Clean Air Act, for example -- the Ryan plan seems to be about planks in the GOP platform, not the debt. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group says it would wind down key elements of the Wall Street reform bill that responded to the economic collapse; roll back policies that rein in health care costs; and slash money for public transit while continuing handouts to the oil and gas industry, all while doing nothing to prevent 83 of the top 100 publicly traded corporations from hiding profits overseas to avoid taxes.

More worrisome is Ryan's suggestion to remake Medicare into a sort of voucher system whereby elderly Americans in some future era would receive vouchers to buy their own health insurance. With this wrong-headed idea, health insurers would almost certainly price their products just beyond the value of the voucher, giving themselves that much more revenue and burdening elderly Americans, all in the name of privatization. Fortunately, this idea has little chance of passage, at least in the near term.

The Republicans have made cutting federal spending the be-all and end-all priority, even as the nation takes its tentative steps out of a recession. That said, the federal government must start spending less. It must climb out of hock with the Asian banks that buy our debt. And federal entitlement programs must be a part of the discussion. So, too, should the Defense Department budget. Even when the military has wanted to eliminate weapons programs, Republicans have protected them because they create jobs back home.

We join those Americans who welcome an honest discussion about federal priorities, not a calculated strategy from the right to galvanize the base with ideological talking points as they ride the issue into the next presidential election season. The Republican leadership should take on a constructive role, not one directed for political gain and little else.

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