As bad as the news is that President Obama wants to slash federal home-energy assistance — and it is bad news, indeed — the decision sets up a crucial test for Republican lawmakers bent on taking the budget ax to this, and other critical domestic programs.
Obama reportedly would cut billions from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, in the budget plan he submitted to Congress on Monday for the 2012 federal fiscal year that begins in October of this year.
That Obama and the congressional GOP are in a bitter budget showdown is clear in the face of political pressure to bring down the mounting federal budget deficit and national debt.
But, unlike many of the cuts Republicans have proposed — such as those to such programs as the National Endowment of the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, which may seem fluffy, and expendable in the name of fiscal discipline — it’s hard to argue that reductions to LIHEAP will hurt average Americans.
Obama’s proposed cuts, for instance, would throw 3.1 million households off energy assistance, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA). This isn’t some kind of optional money. These are dollars that millions of Americans count on to keep the heat on when it gets deadly cold. Without this program, many simply couldn’t pay their utility bills, and would watch helplessly as their home thermostats plummet.
Nor is LIHEAP just some program for the very poor or other population distantly removed from the average American. The number of households requesting help to offset the increasing cost of home energy is expected to reach record levels in FY 2011 for the third year in a row. The number of households served by LIHEAP has increased from about 5.8 million in FY 2008, to 7.7 million in FY 2009, to 8.3 million in FY 2010. The number of households served in FY 2011 is projected to increase to 8.9 million. The increase is being driven primarily by the weak economy and continued higher energy prices, NEADA says. This means at least one of your neighbors likely is relying on LIHEAP — if you are lucky enough not to need it yourself. The people who rely on LIHEAP vote, and even Republicans realize this. That’s why several GOP senators, including conservative Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, signed on to a letter last year looking not to cut funding — but increase it.
So this is where that test for Republicans comes in. The president’s call to slash LIHEAP even in the midst of a down economy and continued widespread unemployment means it would cause real, serious pain for millions of Americans, including those who are basically middle-class but struggling to remain there.
Federal budget-cutting is no longer an abstract concept, if it ever was. It is real, and real Americans (read voters) will feel it. That’s why Maine’s two Republican senators, who otherwise would go along with all of this budget-cutting, have forcefully come out against Obama’s LIHEAP cuts. One of them, it should be noted, Sen. Olympia Snowe, is up for re-election next year, right as many potential voters literally would be freezing. Energy assistance, the Maine Republicans note, “is a necessity, not a luxury.” This begs the question: If Republicans aren’t willing to slash LIHEAP, where are they willing to cut?
These budget cuts are going to hurt, after all. LIHEAP is hardly the only necessity on the chopping block. Voters are going to get angry if many of these proposed cuts come to pass, as the Maine senators have seemed to realize. Maybe this whole meat-ax approach to the federal budget isn’t such a good idea, after all.
The good news is that there are better ways to cut the budget, if only Republicans would listen?