Gary Hart: Remember That These Political Debates Are About Human Beings

"This is not about politics," said one conservative Republican Congressman, "this is about human beings." Later, a colleague added: "This is not a handout." Both are from New York and both were arguing, and rightly so, for federal aid to areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

But both have participated in harangues about "government spending." Though usually not specified, the spending they wish to curtail includes safety nets (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid), social programs (nutrition, child health care, education and much else), environmental protection and investments, and the list goes on. Though any government program can and should be made as effective as possible, each of these is about human beings and none is a handout.

It would be easy to use the "whose ox is gored" argument: even conservatives are for government spending that helps their constituents. But there is a deeper problem here. The age threshold and cost of living index for Social Security will inevitably have to be changed. Cost savings in Medicare will have to occur. And other "reforms" in entitlements will have to be adopted. But each and every one of these is about human beings and not about handouts.

Fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction would be much simpler if elected officials would listen to their own rhetoric and be more honest. Disaster relief, including for Hurricane Sandy, is government spending. That is why Speaker Boehner did not want it to be brought up during the "cliff" debates. ("Oh, by the way, before we cut runaway government spending, let's provide $60 billion for New York and New Jersey.")

A great deal of government spending, in the form of tax expenditures, is for corporate interests and big business. That is not included in conservative calculations about deficits. But virtually all other domestic programs are "about human beings." Disaster relief for Sandy victims is no worse, but also no better, than meals on wheels for the elderly, school breakfast for poor children, unemployment compensation and rent subsidies for the poor. All are government spending and all are "about human beings." Many of these human beings live in a more or less permanent post-Sandy condition.

Deficit reduction is not an abstract economic debate about charts, graphs and projections. It is not even about how much government we should have. It is about human beings and about the kind of society we want. And the unemployed are not monthly statistics. They are real human beings, often close family members, who have bills to pay and children to raise.

So, perhaps even for the hardest of fiscal hearts, a natural disaster can remind us of the role of government in sustaining a civilized society between disasters and remind us that we are all human beings and we are all in this together. And let's hope, perhaps even insist, that when Congress works out a deficit reduction program, they keep this in mind and not take it out on the very great number of Americans who live every day on the edge of disaster. This is about human beings.

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