It’s been more than a decade since Americans have had to seriously curtail their appetite for federal spending.

But the costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hurricane Katrina will create budget pain we haven’t experienced since the Reagan years.

Economists say continued spending given the rising costs of the wars and disasters will push our federal deficit to $400 billion as early as next year, a level that can choke off economic growth by pushing up interest rates.

Even Congress and the president are realizing there is a need for belt tightening.

The political pressure to slash spending is building. The conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation issued last week a scathing report on the spending of President Bush and indeed the Republican Party since it took control of Congress in 1994.

Some Republicans are heeding the call. Rep. Gil Gutknecht, 1st District, is part of a group of conservative Republicans who proposed last week a series of budget offsets.

He says the Republican Study Committee has come up with $500 billion in possible spending cuts to make up, or “offset” the increased spending on the wars and Katrina cleanup.

Gutknecht’s group calls for delaying the new and expensive prescription drug benefit program and special projects of the recently passed transportation bill that he says would save $75 billion right away.

That’s at least a starting point of the discussion. Delaying the prescription drug program will certainly not be a politically popular thing to do. Highway and transportation spending will be even more politically problematic because most of the expensive projects went to districts of powerful and influential members of Congress.

To his credit, Gutknecht has said the Mankato area may not get the $4 million from the transportation bill to complete the extension of Victory Drive.

Cutting the spending will be difficult for many constituencies in the United States. The federal government pours more than $1 billion a year into the nine counties that make up the Mankato region. (See chart).

But the only thing worse than cutting spending and causing pain is cutting spending in a way that is based on politics instead of common sense.

Politics would dictate that funding needed for a wastewater system destroyed by Katrina go instead toward the Victory Drive project in Mankato. Clearly, Louisiana residents need to be healthy and safe and have clean water before we need a new road to the mall.

But if history is an example, those are the kind of decisions that might and could be made in a discussion of federal spending priorities.

Some in Congress are looking at cuts to agricultural subsidies given other needs. Clearly, cuts in agricultural subsidies would significantly impact Mankato’s economy. But there’s also pain involved in cutting federal medical care to vast poverty-stricken areas of Mississippi.

Budget pain is coming, but we can mitigate that pain by making good business decisions about cuts instead of political decisions.

Our character as a nation and democracy may show up in the budget priorities we make. Let’s hope we like what we see when we look in the mirror.

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