There are stark differences between the budget priorities of President Barack Obama and those of Republican congressional leaders, but the one thing they unfortunately agree on is that entitlements — the biggest budget-busters of all — are not touched in their latest proposals. Yet both sides also know that the country will only return to financial health by making adjustments to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The result of this stalemate is that both the president and Congress are tinkering around the edges, inflicting real pain in spending cuts in a sliver of the federal budget without focusing on the broader efforts needed to make a real dent in the federal deficit.
The president's $3.7 trillion budget is a mix of spending cuts and new investments that would reduce the deficit by $1.1 trillion over 10 years. While that might sound promising, Obama's plan increases the national debt by $7.2 trillion, and that's assuming rosy projections for economic growth.
Obama recommends significant domestic spending cuts that will be painful to low-income residents and local communities, including programs that provide heating assistance to the poor and block grants to communities. The president intends to save $400 billion through a five-year freeze in nonsecurity discretionary spending. To his credit, he also proposes reducing the Pentagon's budget by $78 billion over five years, a responsible step that Republicans refuse to consider.
Obama 's budget would prepare the country for future challenges by investing in infrastructure, research and innovation, including high-speed rail, clean energy initiatives and eduction. These are business-friendly steps critical to positioning America to compete in a global marketplace.
Predictably, House Republicans wasted no time in denouncing Obama's vision as too expensive. With pressure from the tea party sympathizers, they are about to start debating their own plan to slash at least $61 billion from nonsecurity domestic spending for the remaining seven months of this fiscal year. (They won't write a budget for fiscal year 2012 until April.)
The immediate cuts Republicans seek are deep and painful to a small slice of the budget that covers a host of vital public services. Their proposals would eliminate or sharply reduce funding for education, health services, law enforcement, border security and an array of other programs. Yet even such significant cuts would have relatively little impact on the deficit over the long run, since nonsecurity domestic spending accounts for only 12 percent of federal spending. Until Republicans are willing to tackle entitlement reform, their calls for fiscal discipline are empty.
Early last year, Republicans helped to doom a truly muscular bipartisan deficit commission by failing to help Obama pass legislation to create one. The commission established through executive order produced a serious blueprint for $4 trillion in savings over 10 years through cuts to domestic and military spending, a tax overhaul, and reforms to Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. While some of the recommendations are controversial, they are worthy of serious discussion.
Four members of that commission are in the Senate and are reportedly working on passing at least some of the recommendations. But until Republicans and Democrats come together to discuss tax increases, more military and domestic cuts and entitlement reform, the country will remain in an eternal game of political chicken while Americans helplessly watch the national debt grow. Inflicting disproportionate pain in a small portion of the budget and pandering to interest groups is not going to get the job done.