The debate by the members of "Congress" over reducing funding for the arts and humanities by $6 billion over 10 years gave U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky a look at what Northwest Indiana residents think about the federal budget.
"When push comes to shove, I love the arts and humanities but it doesn't put food on the table," said Debra Nelson of Valparaiso, who argued that the arts could be funded by private enterprise, and she preferred seeing the money go toward pre-kindergarten programs.
Nelson was one of 90 people participating in a federal budget exercise sponsored by Visclosky, D-Merrillville, and put on by the non-partisan, non-profit Concord Coalition, meant to give citizens insight into the tough choices that go into crafting a federal budget, and provide Visclosky with input on the budget priorities most important to his constituents.
Ultimately, the measure to cut the arts funding died after a tie vote.
Nelson isn't a member of Congress, and neither were the other nine people sitting with her around a table in the Harre Union on the Valparaiso University campus Wednesday night.
Nelson said she signed up to participate in the exercise, last held four years ago, because it was a form of civic engagement and she's interested in budget issues.
"Certainly with everything that's going on in the news these days with the federal government, I think people should be as engaged as they can be," she said.
Before the exercise began, Visclosky said the last time the federal budget was balanced was for four years in the late 1990s, under President Bill Clinton.
According to the Congressional Budget Office website, the federal deficit was $587 billion for 2016 and is estimated at $559 billion for this year.
Though the federal fiscal year started in October, Congress is under a continuing resolution for the second time to fund federal government until a budget is passed, Visclosky said. The latest resolution expires April 28.
"If you ran your house like that, you would be in serious trouble," he said. "It's very difficult to plan next year's budget when you don't have this year's budget and you're halfway through (the fiscal year)."
Later, Visclosky roved the room, periodically sitting by a table so he could listen in as participants debated the merits of various funding measures.
The worksheet packet provided to the participants included making decisions in 36 categories from capping the increase in basic pay for members of the military, for a savings of $24 billion over 10 years, to creating universal pre-kindergarten programs for low- to moderate-income children at a cost of $68 billion over the same time period."None of these are easy decisions," he said, stepping away from a table momentarily. "I like to see how people work through this problem and see what their priorities are."