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Slaying Sacred Cows

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House Democrats have been taunting Republicans to come up with concrete budget cuts ever since the GOP rode to victory last November on a platform of reducing spending. Now, the GOP leadership has proposed an impressive $35 billion down payment on reducing spending for the remaining eight months of the current fiscal year. But don't expect any applause from the Democratic side of the aisle.

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., offered the cuts from non-Defense discretionary programs. They include hefty slices out of the budgets for education, environmental programs, food for poor women and children -- all sacred cows for Democrats. The cuts add up to more than $43 billion in fiscal year 2011 spending, though the net savings is only $35 billion after proposed increases in some areas, such as Defense and Homeland Security.

As the budget debate unfolds, we can expect Democrats to try to paint the GOP as heartless cheapskates who would take food from the mouths of babes in order not to raise taxes on their rich buddies. But the fact is, many of the programs that have traditionally been off-limits for cutting deserve a hard look.

Take Head Start, a preschool program for poor kids aimed at improving their chances to succeed through early intervention. Since its inception in the 1960s, this program has been praised by both Democrats and Republicans and has seen steady growth over the years. President Obama requested $8.2 billion in funding for the program in his 2011 budget -- an increase of $1 billion over the previous fiscal year. But Head Start has never lived up to its hype and political support.

A study conceived during the Clinton administration and completed in the Bush years has largely languished in the bureaucracy. Brookings Institution scholar Grover J. Whitehurst described the major findings from the first round of the study: "The study demonstrated that children's attendance in Head Start has no demonstrable impact on their academic, socio-emotional, or health status at the end of first grade."

Yet Head Start's funding continues to grow -- and it isn't alone. Government work-training programs continue to be touted as necessary, but they are largely ineffective in helping participants get jobs and reducing unemployment. Government subsidies for pet projects like ethanol promise to reduce auto emissions and help the environment. But the environmental impact has been minimal. Worse, they have diverted farmers from producing food to producing fuel, which has led to higher food prices for Americans and less generous food aid abroad.

The same kind of unintended consequences result from another sacred cow: extending unemployment benefits. The federal subsidy, which allows the unemployed to collect checks for longer periods, has actually prolonged unemployment for some workers. It discourages recipients from taking jobs they might have accepted if they had no alternative source of income. And the list goes on.

The House GOP spending cuts aren't the last word on reducing the deficit. They're a good first start, but the real challenge remains tackling the entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in particular. As the American population ages, these programs will bankrupt us unless major overhauls are undertaken.

According to a recent study by the Urban Institute, a single man who turned 65 in 2010 and earned average wages would receive $417,000 in benefits over his lifetime but would have paid in only $345,000 in Social Security and Medicaid taxes. A couple, in which one earner was in a high-income bracket and one was in the average bracket, would receive $988,000 in benefits, but would only have paid in $881,000.

Who pays the difference? Current workers, that's who.

Their taxes pay for current recipients' benefits; and those workers have to hope there will be a supply of even more highly taxed workers in the future to pay for theirs once they retire. It's really a giant Ponzi scheme -- the kind of racket that would send someone to jail if they tried it in the private sector.

The Republicans have started a conversation on debt reduction by taking on some liberal programs that, in the past, would have been safe from the knife. Now it's time for Republicans to initiate an even more difficult conversation by figuring out how to cut middle-class entitlements. But don't count on Democrats to make it easy.

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