HERBERT: Deficit hawks unfazed by harsh reality

Imagine that you've got the gas pedal to the floor as you try to get your vehicle to the top of a mountain, where the road will level off. You've made real progress, but the vehicle is straining and wheezing. You're not there yet. Why would you lift your foot off the gas and risk rolling back down the mountain?

Something like this is happening in the fight to haul the United States out of the depths of the recession. The deficit hawks — policy-makers from the very same crowd whose crazy theories and rampant irresponsibility got us into this terrible fix in the first place — want the United States to step off the stimulus gas, a move that might very well stall the extremely fragile recovery.

The latest struggle has to do with the crucially important issue of federal relief to state and local governments, which are facing nightmarish budget scenarios. Consider this comment from General Davie Jr., the chief of the Natomas Unified School District in Sacramento County: "We made the decision to close our eight elementary school libraries with a heavy heart, but our budget situation is so dire that we had no choice. We've also cut all of our health aides, eliminated busing, shortened our school year by five days, increased K-3 class sizes to 30 to 1, and issued layoff notices to about 30 percent of our teachers, classified staff and administration."

Similar decisions are being made by state and local officials from one coast to the other. State and local governments are obliged by law in nearly all cases to balance their budgets, but their revenues have fallen off a cliff because of the long economic downturn. Thus, they are slashing important government services, laying off workers and raising fees and taxes.

For the federal government to stand by like a disinterested onlooker would be crazy.

President Barack Obama has called on Congress to provide substantial relief to these localities to ward off the harmful impact of the budget cuts. In a letter to congressional leaders of both parties, he urged quick action to prevent the budget cuts from leading to "massive layoffs" of teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public employees.

Congress had already been considering legislation that would provide something approaching $50 billion in aid to states. But the constant chatter from Republicans and increasing numbers of Democrats about rising federal budget deficits has stymied those efforts.

The concerns about the effect this aid might have on long-term federal deficits are misplaced, because the effect would be barely noticeable — if at all. But if Congress doesn't act, the impact in the here and now will be both powerful and painful. The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has warned that the nation could face an "education catastrophe" if the federal government fails to provide assistance to prevent the loss of 100,000 to 300,000 public school jobs.

Nicholas Johnson, the director of the State Fiscal Project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said Monday: "We've already seen in the first quarter of this year that state budget actions lopped half a percentage point off of GDP growth, knocking it from 3½ percent down to 3 percent. To put it in terms of jobs, the actions of state and local governments right now are taking a little more than 20,000 jobs out of the economy each month."

When you put people out of work, you cripple the quality of life of their entire families. When you start dismantling the public schools and driving teachers from the classrooms, you damage — and in many instances cripple — the lifetime prospects of untold numbers of pupils. When you undermine a recovery that is as fragile as this one, which is as fragile as a crate of eggs, you undermine the economic health of the entire nation.

These are the kinds of disasters that the deficit hawks, secure in their ideological dream world, are quite happily prepared to live with.