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Posted: August 10, 2010 4:27 p.m.

What about discretionary spending?

"This debt is like a cancer. It’s truly going to destroy the country from within." These two sobering words were spoken by the heads of President Barack Obama’s national debt commission as reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The 2011 federal debt is estimated to amount to $47,000 for every U.S. resident or $14 trillion. Nine-hundred twenty billion in U.S. IOUs is held by China.

The 18-member debt commission is tasked to come up with a plan by Dec. 1 to reduce, not eliminate, our federal governments annual deficits. The idea is that Congress will then have to vote it up or down, as they did with the Pentagon’s base-closing proposal. As the time draws nearer to that December deadline, there will be leaks and conjecture about what the commission will propose and the noise level of debate on the cable news nets will sound like a Led Zeppelin (or fill-in the blank) concert.

Even though the US had the third lowest tax rate of the seven industrialized countries, the career politicians on Capitol Hill will never pass a tax increase and, of course, this is exactly the wrong time given our current economic malaise. So then, what to cut? Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid make up programs that are described as "discretionary" spending. Now, what does that word really mean? One source defines it as, "available for use at the discretion of the user.’ Another says, "left to discretion: exercised at one’s own discretion." You can then deduce that the only funds that can be cut (or eliminated) are the three mentioned above…nothing else.

When we were not in a war footing, the military spending was evidently considered "discretionary" because it was often reduced and stood at $250 billion in 1996. Today the DOD budget is more than twice that figure at $663.8 billion. That number includes $130 billion for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And how much of that $663 billion is for replacing those weapons worn out in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Millions of Americans are out of work and the fight in DC about stimulus funds continues. Our bridges are deteriorating. The power grid is an antique. Our ability to continue the voracious appetite for oil is increasingly in doubt given the disaster in the Gulf. And the only discretionary spending is Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid? That’s the president’s and Congress’ only option? Can’t they decide whether or not to go to war? And the there’s foreign aid… discretionary??

I teach my students to minimize the numbers in a news story because the TV viewer will be confused and not retain the info. I also tell them that the viewer retains 80 percent of what they see and 20 percent of what they hear. So I am banking on these numbers sticking with the readers of this column. The U.S. is funneling $6.5 billion in aid to Iraq, $5.6 billion to Afghanistan and $1.6 to Pakistan…the first, second and fifth largest recipients of U.S. handouts. "Afghanistan is awash in international aid and regarded as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Indeed, even as the United States and its allies pour money in, U.S. officials estimate that as much as $1 billion a year is flowing out as part of a massive cash exodus," says the Washington Post. "Iraq ranked as the third worst country in the world for corruption in 2006, 2007, and 2008 — and the fourth worst in 2009." This from Transparency International. The World Bank ranked Iraq as the most corrupt. And Pakistan is known for its corrupt government which is why the Taliban has such an easy time operating among the locals who have no love for their elected leaders. Isn’t handing out foreign aid at the discretion of the government? Is it any different than hand-outs to our own citizens?

We all have been fed the justification for these wars. It’s meant to stop terrorist before they reach our shores. But our presence their feeds those terrorists, figuratively and literally. From a Washington Post story in June: "The U.S. military is funding a massive protection racket in Afghanistan, indirectly paying tens of millions of dollars to warlords, corrupt public officials and the Taliban to ensure safe passage of its supply convoys throughout the country, according to congressional investigators."

The issue then becomes how to protect us from "them." What if we were to use a fraction of that aid money to increase intelligence gathering, strengthen the security of our north and south borders and be more effective in screening those attempting to enter this country by any means…airplane or row boat.

Bear with me for a few more numbers. For fighting those wars $130 billion. Consider for a moment how far that $130 billion dollars would go toward lifting us out of this debt tornado that is sucking up our future. For aid to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan…$13.7 billion. One hundred forty-four billion dollars to cut the deficit, thus decreasing the amount of debt that keeps piling on; secure our borders; build bridges; rebuild the power grid; and fund alternative energy development. That’s using discretionary dollars.

We have enough money if we face reality and have the guts to make tough decisions…decisions that directly impact our citizens.

Bob Furnad is a resident of Covington and the former president of CNN Headline News.

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