Obama's budget: Pain but not much gain

The spending plan President Barack Obama is releasing today, which includes cuts projected to trim the nation's cumulative budget deficits by about $1.1 trillion over the next decade, guarantees intense debates in the months ahead. It sets up the possibility of showdowns with Republicans — and maybe even a government shutdown — because its spending cuts on discretionary programs are less than the GOP leaders want, and much less than its new tea party caucus is demanding. And at the same time, the president's plan promises very real pain for people who would be affected by the proposed cuts to programs such as energy assistance for the poor, Pell Grants and Community Development Block Grants.

And the real shame of it all is that none of it — not what the president is proposing and not what the Republicans want — would come anywhere close to actually solving the nation's budget problems. Mr. Obama's spending blueprint still calls for a record deficit of nearly $1.5 trillion next year, and the cuts he's envisioning would reduce the total deficits between now and 2021 by about 14 percent.

Republicans haven't yet submitted a proposal for next year's budget, but they are hard at work seeking to slash spending in the current year's budget — which is really just a continuation of the one from the year before, because Congress was unable to agree on a spending plan for fiscal 2011. As Republicans have fought over whether to cut nondefense discretionary programs deeply or really deeply, they have targeted Head Start, nutritional aid for poor children and food safety inspections, in addition to going after some of the same things that President Obama targets. They would eliminate funding for AmeriCorps and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting altogether. All that would amount to cutting $60 billion this year, or somewhat less than 5 percent of the current $1.3 trillion deficit.

Before Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, authored a plan that would have reduced the deficit by about $3.6 trillion over the next decade, all through spending cuts, including proposals that would radically reshape entitlement programs like Medicare. But now that Mr. Ryan is House Budget Committee chairman, he's not quite so bold. He demurred on Fox News Sunday this week about whether his plan for the next fiscal year will deal with the entitlement programs that are actually driving the budget deficit, or whether it will stick to discussions of the small sliver of programs the GOP has actually been willing to cut.

This is a disappointing development on the Republican side, particularly since the tea party movement seemed to promise at least a new emphasis on governing rather than politicking, even if many of its proposed solutions were wrong. But the president's stance is more disappointing. Mr. Obama has proposed cuts that are damaging to hundreds of thousands of people but don't make a significant dent in the deficit. The best spin that can be put on it is that it is a down payment on real reforms later, but it is clear that the president shied away from leadership on the deficit for fear that it would lead to a political backlash. We disagree with Sen. Tom Coburn on many things, but the conservative Republican from Oklahoma had it absolutely right when he told The New York Times that the president is the executive, and it is his responsibility to set the tone. "The president can either lead with a big, bold agenda and call Republicans' bluff or he can play it safe and nobody gets anything done," Mr. Coburn said. "He has the opportunity to be one of the greatest presidents that we've had if he'll get out and lead on this."

The brief moment when members of both parties sat down and had an honest conversation about the deficit and what needs to be done about it — including reforms to entitlements, big cuts to defense spending and a serious reexamination of so-called "tax expenditures," like deductions for charitable contributions and home mortgage interest — appears to have been an artifact of the strange period of consensus that flowered during the lame duck session. The proposal by the president's debt commission, which would have gone further than even Mr. Ryan, appears all but forgotten. Instead, we have both the president and the Republicans drawing political battle lines, making the chance for a bipartisan compromise before the 2012 election appear faint.

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