Rich Lowry: A charmless budget
President Barack Obama’s latest budget proposal makes a good predicate for a grand bargain — between the White House and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Granted, the White House envisions a higher level of debt 10 years from now than in the highly ideological document produced by the most left-wing Democrats in Congress. But if the president is truly open to reason, he’ll listen to the co-chairmen of the caucus and find a way to achieve as much deficit reduction as they do.
Then, at least, he’ll be a little closer to Paul Ryan and the House Republicans, who have about $4 trillion to $5 trillion more in deficit reduction than he does over the next 10 years.
The new White House budget is supposed to embody the president’s “charm offensive,” during which he has subjected himself to the indignity of occasionally eating meals with members of the opposition. He was forced into this expedient after his posture of the end-is-nigh confrontation in the run-up to the sequester failed miserably.
Going out of his way to get to know Republican senators and congressmen in the fifth year of his presidency is certainly charming of him, but if Obama truly wants a “grand bargain,” there’s no substitute for substance. This budget doesn’t provide it, but hey, there’s always the 2015 budget.
There are a few constants in the president’s budgeteering. When he isn’t reaching out to Republicans, he proposes more spending and taxes. When he is reaching out to Republicans, he proposes more spending and taxes. He increases spending by $150 billion next year and wants an additional $1 trillion in new taxes over the next 10 years.
In fact, he’s so consistent that even when he is making a serious gesture toward deficit reduction, he increases the deficit. He’s proposing a higher deficit than under current policy until 2017, when he’s out of office. In other words, if the president threw up his hands and said, “Let’s keep doing what we’re doing now,” the deficit would initially be lower than under his much-touted budget attempting to meet Republicans halfway.
Even the claimed deficit reduction evaporates upon first contact with scrutiny. The Associated Press writes: “Obama claims $1.8 trillion in deficit savings over the coming decade, but the budget tables show the savings are actually $1.4 trillion. And $1.2 trillion of that is devoted to reversing automatic, across-the-board spending cuts required because of Washington’s inability to follow up a 2011 budget pact with further deficit action.”
The signature proposal of the new, more winsome and companionable Obama budget is so-called chained CPI, a technical adjustment in the calculation of inflation that reduces Social Security benefits. This was part of Obama’s offer to House Speaker John Boehner in the grand-bargain negotiations. Obama has repeatedly congratulated himself in public for his courage on entitlements behind closed doors, without ever bothering to propose in open view what he advocated in private.
Now, he has put it in writing. That’s progress. And he deserves credit for doing what Republicans haven’t dared — cutting an entitlement benefit for current retirees. But chained CPI is an inherently “balanced” proposal, since it accelerates bracket creep and leads to higher taxes.
Regardless, the president says he will jettison it without other tax increases. This is the joke of the Obama charm offensive in a nutshell: He won’t accept his own proposal for what is, in part, a tax increase, unless it is paired with yet more tax increases.
If the president thinks Republicans are going to go for this, he hasn’t spent nearly enough time with them. It is hard to imagine a deader-on-arrival budget. More than a herald of a great breakthrough, it is another indication that the entitlement crisis that is a little closer with the retirement of every baby boomer won’t be seriously addressed during his presidency.
If this is the best he can do, he should stop trying.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.