Obama’s Baby Step

The president has some decent proposals, but his budget is still far from what we need.
April 10, 2013 • Commentary
This article appeared in National Review (Online) on April 10, 2013.

President Obama will officially unveil his proposed 2014 budget today, just 64 days after it was required to be submitted under the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. Better late than never.

While it is not exactly the compromise the media has portrayed it to be, the president’s budget is a serious proposal that takes some steps in the right direction. It is certainly a much better starting point for negotiations than the nonsense passed last month by Senate Democrats.

For example, President Obama really should be given credit for putting entitlement reform on the table. There can be no serious effort to balance the budget without tackling entitlements, but it’s not an easy thing for a Democrat to do. A politician willing to do what is right even when it is opposed by his own base is rare enough that he should be celebrated. The president’s proposals, further, may give Republicans a bit of political cover for their entitlement‐​reform plans.

Besides, anything that makes MoveOn​.org and the AARP this angry can’t be all bad.

The president’s budget acknowledges our fiscal realities, but his reforms fall far short of the structural changes necessary to avoid catastrophic levels of debt. For example, the president has embraced “chained CPI,” a mechanism for calculating cost‐​of‐​living increases that better accounts for changes in lifestyle and technology. This apparently was an idea that originated with House Republicans, notably Speaker John Boehner, which just goes to show that not every Republican idea is a good one. Chained CPI would reduce Social Security’s liabilities by roughly $130 billion over the next ten years and, while the savings will grow in the out years, they are nowhere near sufficient to restore the program to solvency. In fact, the actual savings may turn out to be far less than predicted, since the gap between traditional CPI measures and chained CPI has been diminishing over the past several years.

On the other hand, chained CPI would also increase taxes by $124 billion over ten years, as it pushes millions of low‐ and middle‐​income Americans into higher tax brackets. One need only recall what an albatross the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) has become for taxpayers it was never meant to hit to understand the potential fallout from applying a slower measure of inflation to tax brackets.

The president does get credit on Medicare, for acknowledging that the program is on an unsustainable path. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates that the program is at least $42 trillion in the red. Independent experts suggest it could be twice as much, and the president does call for some $400 billion in Medicare and other health‐​program cuts over the next ten years, and more in the out years. But that is barely a drop in the bucket of what is needed, and the president continues to duck the really tough choices about cutting benefits. Instead, the president continues to pretend that he can further squeeze reimbursements to health‐​care providers without reducing benefits to seniors.

President Obama also seems willing to follow the lead of much‐​vilified Republican governors Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Chris Christie in asking government workers to pay more for their benefits. Specifically, he would require federal employees to contribute more to their pensions and take some benefit cuts, to the tune of $35 billion.

In other areas, however, the president’s budget is a major disappointment. For example, like the Senate Democrats’ budget proposal, the president’s budget would never balance. It adds some $8 trillion to the national debt over ten years, meaning that by 2023 our gross debt will approach $25 trillion.

The president’s budget doesn’t balance, but it does increase both spending and — of course — taxes. The president would send more dollars the way of the usual suspects such as green energy, infrastructure, and a new universal pre‐​K plan, adding up to some $100 billion. On the tax side, the president is asking for $600 billion in additional taxes over ten years. These include reducing the value of tax deductions for “high income” people and imposing a cigarette‐​tax hike that will likely raise some $40 billion. Many revenue increases are actually counted as cuts, too, such as the sales of broadcast spectrum and federal properties, and increased TSA fees.

Overall, this is not a budget designed to reduce spending or the size of government. But as they say, the longest journey starts with a single step. President Obama has offered a teeny‐​tiny stride.

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