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News Opinion

Big Bird is more real than Romney's budget plans

Mitt Romney may have won the first presidential debate, but what stuck in many people's minds was his threat to fire Big Bird. Apparently, Mr. Romney thinks America's debt problem can be fixed by picking up pennies along Sesame Street.

Pressed to explain how he would balance the federal budget while cutting trillions of dollars in taxes, the allegedly masterful debater offered up just two specifics: He would repeal "Obamacare" (even though the Congressional Budget Office says the health care act actually reduces deficit spending) and eliminate the federal subsidy to the Public Broadcasting System.

Directly addressing beleaguered debate moderator Jim Lehrer, the former anchor of the PBS NewsHour, Mr. Romney said, "I'm sorry Jim, I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. ... I like PBS, I love Big Bird, I actually like you, too, but I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for."

Mr. Romney went on to say he would save additional money by tossing popular federal programs back to the states (the same states that do not have enough money to operate the programs they already have) and by making "government more efficient" (the same boilerplate assurance that every candidate for even the lowliest office offers up when he has no real clue how to fix a budget).

So, after many long months of campaigning and promising to cut the deficit while also cutting taxes, the single genuine and specific spending reduction Mr. Romney has stipulated is the 0.01 percent of federal expenditures that helps pay for Big Bird, "Downton Abbey" and the rest of the PBS line up. Defenders of PBS were quick to point out that eliminating the federal subsidy for public television would trim an amount equal to just six hours -- 360 minutes -- of spending at the Pentagon.

I seems as if it would be more effective to leave PBS with its miniscule piece of federal largesse and, instead, cut six hours -- or maybe 24 or 48 hours -- of military spending, right? Apparently not to Mr. Romney. Rather than trimming the Defense Department budget, he has proposed a radical spike in defense outlays that would take military spending to the highest level in 60 years.

On Monday, in his foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute, Mr. Romney attacked President Obama, saying the U.S. cannot play an effective role in the Middle East "when our defense spending is being arbitrarily and deeply cut." Since there have been no arbitrary and deep cuts for the military in Mr. Obama's first term, Mr. Romney must have been referring to the automatic reductions that could kick in if Congress and the president fail to reach a budget deal by January. Whether or not that happens, it is crazy to suggest the United States does not spend enough money to keep the country safe.

The 10 nations with the biggest defense budgets spend more than $1 trillion a year on military might. Americans shell out 60 percent of that amount. In other words, the United States spends more than everyone else combined.

If reining in excessive military spending cannot be part of the budget balancing equation, then bulldozing Sesame Street is a pointless exercise that will do exactly nothing to stop American borrowing from China or head off fiscal calamity. Muppet he may be, but Big Bird is more real than Mitt Romney's fanciful scheme to balance the budget while sending Pentagon spending into the stratosphere.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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