NDD United: Making Noise About Government’s “Other” Role

On June 4, 2012, 350 advocates representing the full breadth of stakeholders vested in non-defense discretionary federal programs attended an “NDD Town Hall” to learn more about sequestration, and efforts to rally behind a unified message and advocacy strategy.

Spending for discretionary programs—determined annually at Congress’ “discretion”—is divided into two categories: defense and nondefense. Defense discretionary includes funding for our nation’s military. Nondefense discretionary or “NDD” supports all other core functions the government provides for the benefit of all Americans, including medical and scientific research, education and job training, transportation and infrastructure, public safety and law enforcement, public health, and weather monitoring and environmental protection; among others.

The high drama that led to last summer’s landmark debt ceiling agreement between President Obama and Congress, the Budget Control Act of 2011, set caps on discretionary spending over 10 years, resulting in $1 trillion in cuts spread across defense and NDD programs. The new law also directed a congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to identify an additional $1.2 trillion in budget savings over 10 years.

The so-called Super Committee’s failure to strike an agreement meant that instead of making tough choices on raising taxes and reforming entitlements—the ones that really contribute to the deficit—lawmakers opted for a meat-axe approach, called sequestration, where virtually all federal programs receive an across-the board cut, starting on January 2, 2013.

In practical terms, the sequester means an automatic 8.4 percent cut to program funding levels in 2013 for most NDD programs—in addition to the $1 trillion in cuts already sustained through the Budget Control Act’s discretionary caps. These cuts will truly be across-the-board, with no departmental or agency control on how the sequester impacts individual programs.

No sooner had the Super Committee crashed and burned that Pentagon officials, defense contractors and some in Congress sounded alarms. Most recently, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested sequestration on defense would increase the likelihood of war. The result: numerous bills introduced to exempt defense from sequestration—and ultimately let NDD absorb all the cuts!

Make no mistake, national security is important. But let’s not forget the other side of the equation. NDD programs support economic growth, strengthen safety and security, while enriching the lives of every American in every state and community across the nation. They represent the second smallest share of the federal budget and our GDP. And yet, these programs are always the most vulnerable to cuts in budget discussions. In fact, you could eliminate all NDD programs and still not fix the nation’s deficit or debt. So why is NDD the only place people seem willing to look for cuts?

Some suggest it’s a messaging problem. After all, what does “NDD” mean? From a messaging standpoint, it’s certainly never good to start from a position where you’re defined by what you’re not. But the name in and of itself isn’t the problem, per se. Take brand names for products: Pepsi; Xerox; Band-Aid; Google; Nexium. The words mean nothing. And yet, every American knows exactly what they stand for, and what product they represent (some are even now used as verbs!). That’s because their brand identity has been defined. It is true we haven’t defined a brand identity for NDD, and that is a problem. But what we call it doesn’t really matter.

Even if we called NDD something else, it would remain the “go-to” place for cuts for two key reasons. First, the communities that make up NDD—from education and health, to law enforcement and foreign relations, to housing and environmental protection—have never before come together as a single, unified community. Instead, heretofore we have competed for attention with each other; the crabs in a barrel climbing over each other to get whatever scraps we can. And thus we’ve failed to connect the dots that all of the programs we care about and the services and jobs they support are in fact, NDD.

Second, our respective communities have failed in educating Members of Congress and ordinary Americans about the government’s important role in their daily lives. Americans have been led to believe by vocal, well-funded minorities that the government is the problem. It’s too big. It’s inefficient and wasteful. It’s intrusive. It’s limiting freedom. Americans don’t hear about the ways in which the government supports their modern way of life. Most Americans wouldn’t realize that the government supports the roads and bridges on which they drive. The commuter rails they take to work. The safe medications they take and safe food they eat. The police who patrol their neighborhood, and the first responders who help in times of crisis. The air traffic controllers who ensure their flights get them to their destinations, safely. Polls show that the majority of Americans support more cuts to federal spending. But the same polls also show that once these same Americans realize what federal spending provides—and what they stand to lose if it’s cut—they oppose those cuts. There is a marked disconnect between what Americans think they want, and what they really want when they realize the consequences of indiscriminate cuts.

As advocates and educators, we have failed to connect those dots and allowed the anti-government movement to control the narrative.

Recognizing these failures, CRD Associates’ team supporting the Coalition for Health Funding has convened other coalition leaders in the NDD community to break the “business as usual” mode of advocacy. The resulting “NDD Summit” of 60 delegates is an ad hoc, network of networks guiding the broader NDD community’s efforts in: (1) educating policymakers and the public about the value of NDD programs and the impact of sequestration and (2) advocating for a balanced approach to deficit reduction that does not include further NDD spending cuts.

If advocates are to raise the visibility of NDD and stand a chance of competing for public support with taxes, Medicare, and defense, we must say the same thing, to the same people, at the same time. The NDD Town Hall on June 4 was the first event to draw attention to sequestration’s impact on NDD, and begin to build support for a unified message, position, and strategy. Over the next few months, the NDD Summit will engage in direct advocacy activities—e.g., circulating a community-wide sign on letter—and develop an advocacy tool kit to help organizations and individuals who wish to advocate for a balanced approach to deficit reduction to avoid sequestration. For more information, including a recording of the NDD Town Hall, please visit the Coalition for Health Funding’s NDD United “hub,” here.

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