President Obama has delivered a 2012 budget proposal to Congress. It's a big number with lots of zeroes in it, as is the deficit spending it perpetuates - $3.73 trillion and more than $1.1 trillion respectively. Believe it or not, the latter number - once unimaginable - would be an improvement over the last three years, including this fiscal year's anticipated $1.65 trillion in red ink.
Congress never actually got around to adopting a formal budget for the current year, of course. Uncle Sam is still breathing because of a continuing resolution that expires March 4. If we're to go off the White House's 2011 budget that remains a "proposal" - about $3.83 trillion - this 2012 spending blueprint does appear to move in the right direction, if you measure progress in fractions of fractions of a millimeter.
The White House purports to reduce deficits by $1.1 trillion over the next 10 years, two-thirds of it from spending cuts and the rest through additional revenues, between taxes and economic growth. It would do this in part through a five-year "freeze" in discretionary spending, which sounds good but is deceiving. First, that spending was dramatically inflated over the last three years; and second, it represents only about one-third of overall expenditures in the first place. But then the administration also excludes domestic security costs, which takes the part of the budget in play to 12 percent. Most damningly, entitlements - 60 percent of the budget - are left virtually untouched. That doesn't come close to the $4 trillion recommended by his own deficit commission. And most of the deficit reduction is postponed until after Obama leaves office, even if he wins a second term.
(A word to the wise here: They define the word "cut" in Washington, D.C. differently than they do elsewhere. Fortunately, we speak Politician and can translate to English: By "cut" they mean a decrease in the proposed rate of spending increase.)
Meanwhile, the administration already is backing off on reduced reimbursements to doctors who treat Medicare patients, one of the ways it planned to pay for last year's health care bill. While some programs or tax breaks may be inching toward the buzz saw, what savings that might produce would be mostly eaten up by boosts for education, transportation, alternative energy. The administration also assumes annual economic growth of 4 percent from 2012-14, which may be optimistic.
Bottom line, the bottom line doesn't budge much. The rate at which the red ink accumulates may be slowed, it may be more manageable as a percentage of the entire economy, but we're still facing at least $7.2 trillion in additional debt - some put it considerably higher - over the next decade. No one in the nation's capital should be patting himself on the back for his newfound frugality.
That criticism is aimed mostly at Democrats, but not escaping it are Republicans who like to talk tough about limiting the reach of government but often stop well short of doing it. To be sure, Republicans would cut more, faster - some $2.5 trillion over a decade - but again that's considerably less than the deficit commission's recommendation. Their immediate goal - $100 billion in cuts yet this fiscal year - amounts to a not-so-whopping 2.6 percent of all spending, 7.5 percent of discretionary. To balance the budget, Uncle Sam would have to be 30 percent leaner.
Page 2 of 2 - If you're really serious about fiscal sobriety you take nothing off the table, yet many in the GOP are demanding hands off defense. Even this Democratic president would trim the Pentagon by $78 billion over five years. Republicans don't get to whack the programs they hate already while protecting their own sacred cows and then act all noble about it. We don't disagree that it would be unwise to erase all the red ink in one fell swoop - it would likely be disastrous - but if the Founders had set the bar this low, we'd still be 13 colonies.
A few years ago President George W. Bush talked about the nation's addiction to oil, but that's nothing compared to our addiction to spending. This budget debate is like arguing which is worse, meth or heroin. As a result, Uncle Sam is now routinely running the largest deficits both in real dollars and as a percentage of GDP since we were engaged in world war. The nation's debt is at "a survival-level threat," according to Indiana governor and potential presidential candidate Mitch Daniels.
In fact, Washington cannot tame this budget beast without doing some very unpopular things, politically speaking. Without touching entitlements - Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid - the nation is doomed. Slash defense spending, stop going to war everywhere. At some point, in some way, taxes may have to be raised (the bipartisan delay of which, by the way, significantly aggravates this year's deficit). A balanced approach across the entire budget is absolutely required.
No one is pretending that any of this is easy, certainly not as easy as mindlessly running up the bill in the first place, and some of the cuts - like home-heating assistance to the poor - are lamentable. Every last one of those dollars comes with a constituency - senior citizens, veterans, farmers, teachers, environmentalists, doctors, lawyers, you name it - and the refrain from each is always the same: Cut him, don't cut me. We're not deaf to the concerns about derailing the recovery, but too many Americans are living on Fantasy Island, believing these programs can continue to exist for them and for future generations without any sacrifice whatsoever on their part.
Why create a deficit commission with no intention of taking its recommendations seriously? They've backed themselves into a corner from which there is almost no choice but to act. The longer they wait, the closer to the point of no return we get.