OMB Director Lew on the New Budget

President Obama will release his budget blueprint for fiscal 2012 next week. If an op-ed penned by his budget director, Jacob Lew, in Sunday’s New York Times is any indication, the administration intends to continue fiddling while the government’s finances burn.

The title of the piece, “The Easy Cuts Are Behind Us,” is a real head-scratcher. Lew’s “easy cuts” are an apparent reference to the $20 billion in savings the president proposed in his previous budgets. Considering that the president proposed total spending of $3.8 trillion last year, $20 billion in gross cuts was an insignificant gesture to say the least. In reality, the Bush administration passed the spending baton to the Obama administration two years ago and it promptly sprinted off like Usain Bolt.

Lew says:

In a little over a week, President Obama will send Congress his budget for the 2012 fiscal year. The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.

Perhaps the current budgetary state of affairs is an expression of the administration’s values and aspirations. But while an unhealthy number of Americans have become accustomed to living at the expense of their neighbor via the government, which the budget does reflect, there is growing popular recognition that saddling future generations with back-breaking debt is morally bankrupt.

Lew says:

As the president said in his State of the Union address, now that the country is back from the brink of a potential economic collapse, our goal is to win the future by out-educating, out-building and out-innovating our rivals so that we can return to robust economic and job growth. But to make room for the investments we need to foster growth, we have to cut what we cannot afford. We have to reduce the burden placed on our economy by years of deficits and debt.

This zero-sum take on the global economy is ignorant. Economic growth in “rival” countries creates opportunities for economic growth in the United States and vice-versa. My trade colleagues can better cover this ground, but the idea that our government needs to export more debt in order to out-anything is preposterous. The U.S. already out-spends its “rivals” on education and what do we have to show for it?

If the administration is concerned with our economic competitiveness, it should be looking to restrain the federal government’s heavy-hand in the economy. The federal government alone now sucks up a quarter of the country’s economic output. More government “investments” for building fancy trains might provide Joe Biden with lots of ribbon-cutting photo-ops, but such gross misallocations of taxpayer resources are not a recipe for “robust economic and job growth.”

Lew says:

We cannot win the future, expand the economy and spur job creation if we are saddled with increasingly growing deficits. That is why the president’s budget is a comprehensive and responsible plan that will put us on a path toward fiscal sustainability in the next few years — a down payment toward tackling our challenges in the long term.

According to Lew, the administration plans to do this by freezing non-security discretionary spending for five years. But several paragraphs later he acknowledges that “Discretionary spending not related to security represents just a little more than one-tenth of the entire federal budget, so cutting solely in this area will never be enough to address our long-term fiscal challenges.”

Does Lew give even a hint as to how the administration plans to “address our long-term fiscal challenges”? Nope.

In the intervening paragraphs Lew does give us a taste of the “deeper cuts” that the president will propose next week. One cut would be $300 million, or 7.5 percent, in the Community Development Block Grant program, which funds critical federal concerns like funding facade renovations for a wine bar in Connecticut and expanding a brewery in Michigan.

The Community Service Block Grant program (change one word and, voilà, a new program) would be cut in half to save a whopping $350 million. Lew says this cut was not easy for the president because “These are the kinds of programs that President Obama worked with when he was a community organizer.”

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative would get chopped by 25 percent, or $125 million, which Lew calls “another difficult cut.” If that’s a “difficult” cut, one can only wonder what Lew would call the cuts needed to actually “address our long-term fiscal challenges.”

After punting on the long-term fiscal challenges and pretending that the relatively insignificant cuts the administration will propose represent “tough choices,” Lew begins his wrap up by warning against cutting spending:

We must take care to avoid indiscriminate cuts in areas critical to long-term growth like education, innovation and infrastructure — cuts that would stifle the economy just as it begins to recover.

The country cannot afford business as usual. And it certainly can’t afford business as has been conducted by this administration. Unfortunately, while the exact details of the president’s latest budget proposal remain to be seen, Lew’s op-ed indicates that this tiger isn’t about to change his stripes.