Approach is wrong

It would be easier to feel sorry for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos if the $17.6 million cut she plans in her department’s budget was going to be rebated to taxpayers or, perhaps, used to help pay down the national debt. But the federal government never, ever spends less. The budget goes up every year.

It is where DeVos plans to cut the $17.6 million — out of federal support for the Special Olympics program — that has landed her in hot water.

Special Olympics is a truly wonderful initiative. It provides organized, athletic competitions for those with intellectual disabilities. There are Special Olympics events right here our area.

DeVos, grilled by members of Congress this week, agrees that Special Olympics is “awesome.” But, she points out, it is a private charity that raises about $150 million a year. Only about one-tenth of the amount comes from the federal government.

“There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money,” DeVos noted in a statement this week. But, she added, “Given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”

She is far from the first person to question the propriety of taking money from taxpayers, then giving some of it to programs deemed worthy by federal officials — while refusing to help any number of other good causes. In 1794, James Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” questioned Congress’ approval of $15,000 to help French refugees fleeing an insurrection in the Caribbean. “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents,” Madison wrote.

Still, jerking the federal rug out from under Special Olympics all at once is not a good idea. Like so many charities, sudden loss of 10 percent of its annual revenue could be a serious blow to the organization.

A better idea might be to phase out federal support, a little at a time — say, by reducing Washington’s grants over a 10-year period, until they are eliminated.

Philosophically, DeVos is right. Her ham-handed approach to Special Olympics is wrong, however, and Congress ought to amend it.