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Don’t Forget: Protect the Poorest Americans in Any Deficit Savings “Backstop”

At some point, the President and Congress will likely agree on a deficit package that includes both up-front savings and a target for more savings that they would achieve in 2013 by changing tax and spending policies.

The package also will likely include a backstop mechanism that’s designed to ensure that the 2013 savings come to fruition even if the President and Congress fail to agree on those policy changes.

In designing that mechanism (e.g., automatic across-the-board spending cuts), policymakers will face a decision that’s received little attention of late — whether to continue a quarter-century tradition of protecting low-income programs or to break faith with that tradition and risk serious harm to the poorest and most vulnerable Americans.

Ever since the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings (GRH) law, with its annual deficit targets and its across-the-board spending cuts (or “sequestration”) to enforce them, policymakers have exempted low-income mandatory (or entitlement) programs whenever they’ve included backstop mechanisms of that kind in deficit-reduction packages.  That tradition includes both versions of GRH (1985 and 1987), the pay-as-you-go laws of 1990 and 2009, and the sequestration mechanism of last year’s Budget Control Act.  Most of these laws were enacted on a bipartisan basis.

Were policymakers to ignore this tradition, at risk would be such key safety net programs for the nation’s most vulnerable families and individuals as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income for poor seniors and people with disabilities, child care assistance, free and reduced-price school meals for low-income children, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Subjecting these programs to a backstop mechanism would impose enormous hardship on people already living on the margins, far below the poverty line, and it would likely result in increases in homelessness, hunger, and the number of people who can't access needed health care.  The effects on poor young children could be long-lasting.

The crafting of a backstop mechanism, and what’s in it, is part of a larger question: who should bear the burden of deficit reduction?

In the plan by its co-chairs, former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Senator Alan Simpson, the President’s fiscal commission concluded that any deficit reduction plan should “protect the truly disadvantaged.”  Similarly, a blue-ribbon private commission chaired by former Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin and former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici proposed a plan that avoided cuts in low-income mandatory programs other than Medicaid.  The plan produced in July 2011 by the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Six did the same.

Those who believe that deficit reduction should not increase poverty, inequality, the ranks of the uninsured, or other hardships for our most vulnerable citizens should honor the Bowles-Simpson principle to that effect.  Policymakers should not overturn more than 25 years of precedent, and instead should maintain the historic exemption for low-income entitlement programs from automatic cuts under a backstop mechanism.