More Budget Charades in Washington

Bipartisan failure in D.C.


Washington, as the story goes, remains stuck in a budgetary stalemate between big-spending liberals who want to raise taxes and lavish money on wasteful programs, and crypto-anarchist conservatives who want to burn the entire federal government to the ground. If you believe his press clippings, President Obama has just boldly waltzed into the middle of this tug-of-war with a Nixon-goes-to-China proposal to tackle runaway entitlement spending.


The gulf between proposals does not exactly resemble the Grand Canyon. It looks more like a golf-course divot.

Ten years out, the House Republicans' plan would spend $4.95 trillion, or 19.1 percent of Gross Domestic Product. The Senate Democrats' plan would spend $5.69 trillion, or 21.9 percent of GDP. Obama's plan would spend $5.66 trillion, or 21.7 percent.  The president's budget, then, yaws far closer to the Senate Democrats' proposal than to the midpoint between the two congressional blueprints. Yet all three plans still lie within shouting distance of one another.

You can read that a couple of ways. The first is to conclude that the president has shifted markedly to the right. That's how many big media outlets are playing it. The New York Times says Obama's new budget "defines him as a president willing to take on the two pillars of his party—Medicare and Social Security—created by Democratic presidents. . . . [Some on the left are asking] whether he is a progressive at all." The Washington Post says Obama has "set aside the grand ambitions that marked his early days in office. . . . Obama proposes nothing on the scale of the $1.2 trillion initiative to extend health coverage to the uninsured that he pursued after taking office in 2009."

Seriously? That's the standard? Then to avoid charges of progressive apostasy, Obama would have to propose another new trillion-dollar program every year. After Obamacare for health care, we'd need Obamacare for housing. Then Obamacare for the nation's food supply. And so on.

The second way you can read the numbers is to conclude that Republicans are not nearly so austere as they—and for that matter, Democrats—would like everyone to believe. And there are good reasons to buy that interpretation. For one thing, we can take the House proposal as basically an opening bid in the negotiations—whereas Obama has made it clear his budget represents his final offer: Take it or leave it. While the GOP probably is willing to accept a less austere budget, the president is not willing to accept one that is more austere.

But then you can't really use the word "austere" in reference to any of these budgets. Not unless you're the sort who thinks Albania would now be the crown jewel of Europe if only the late Communist dictator Enver Hoxha had been a little more stern with the counter-revolutionary elements.

Overall, Obama's budget increases spending at a rate of 4.5 percent a year. And despite all the talk of entitlement "cuts," it increases Social Security spending by 25 percent after adjusting for inflation, and increases Medicare spending by an even larger amount. The so-called cuts to those programs are simply slight reductions in the rate of growth.

Elsewhere, the president proposes about $25 billion in ostensible cuts. But those are more than offset by higher spending—such as $77 billion for an expanded early-childhood education program—along with higher taxes, to the tune of about $700 billion.

This would be on top of the $600 billion in taxes the president already won in the year-end fiscal-cliff deal, not to mention the $1 trillion in tax hikes passed as part of Obamacare. But the president's current $700-billion tax hike is less than Senate Democrats' proposal to hike taxes another $1 trillion—so it occupies what, in Washington, passes for the middle ground.

All of this assumes you can trust the fiscal projections. But you can't. Washington always lowballs. Look at the health-care exchanges required under Obamacare, the cost of which is now expected to be more than double initial estimates. Or consider Medicare's Sustainable Growth Rate, a 1990s-era formula meant to impose fiscal discipline on that program. Congress writes a waiver from it every year like clockwork. It should tell you something that, according to Yuval Levin in National Review, more than 90 percent of the cuts in Obama's budget will take effect after he has left office. What it should tell you is that they won't ever happen.

Nevertheless, progressives profess to be utterly outraged by their president's callous betrayal. Imitating a longstanding practice on the right, they are now threatening to "primary" Democrats who compromise by raising taxes and spending to a less-than-ruinous degree. There is talk of recruiting a presidential candidate who will not fall prey, like the perfidious Obama, to the sin of ideological deviationism. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's name is being bandied about, for instance. She is no Enver Hoxha, but she will have to do.

This article originally appeared in The Richmond Times-Dispatch.