Donna Brazile: Yes, we want it; no, we don’t?
Maybe our media will finally start filtering the noise.
But there’s more to the budget than meets the sound bite. Does it really include defense cuts and entitlement growth?
To quote Fox News, “The president’s budget includes 215 proposals to cut spending, will raise $680 billion in new tax revenues and reduce future deficits by $600 billion over 10 years.”
Despite news stories that President Obama is cutting defense spending, he actually is asking for more money. The president’s budget removes sequester cuts, which everyone agrees were harmful to our defense; thus, not counting savings from reorganization and cutting wasteful spending, Obama’s overall budget proposal, as Kevin Drum of Mother Jones points out, “is $115 billion more than the current sequester levels demanded by Republicans.”
When the president announced that the “chained CPI” proposal won’t be in his 2015 budget, we got the cliched hyperventilating that results whenever Obama’s name is mentioned. But there are sound economic — and political — reasons not to chain CPI. The CPI, or consumer price index, is a way to index spending and taxes — including Social Security benefits — to the rate of inflation. (Inflation, of course, is an economic term for the rise in prices over time.)
There are two ways to calculate CPI: CPI-W, an index for urban wage earners and clerical workers; and chained CPI, an index for all urban workers. Social Security benefits “tick up” slower under chained CPI, adversely affecting the vulnerable and the elderly. The AARP opposes it. The organization points out that if chained CPI is implemented now, someone who retires at 62 will be losing the equivalent of a month’s Social Security per year by the time he or she is 92, as compared to current CPI levels. Chained CPI economically shackles retired citizens who depend on Social Security.
Media reporting has focused on the teeter-totter — the strong pushback by Congressional Democrats against including chained CPI in the budget again (it was proposed in 2013) or the Republican leaders’ charges that leaving chained CPI out shows the president isn’t serious about safety-net program (entitlements) reforms. When one goes up, the other goes down. And vice versa.
Budget debates get messy because the economics get complicated. The politics — the jostling for space on the showroom floor — make budget issues even harder to explain, and to understand.
Still, the president had sound economic reasons not to switch to the chained CPI in his budget: It would hurt seniors and the disabled. He also had sound political reasons.
When Obama prepared his budget last year, Republican leaders pushed hard for him to include chained CPI. And he did. But then House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., left chained CPI out of his own Republican budget. He left out Social Security cost savings altogether, and had fewer Medicare savings over the following 10 years than the Obama budget.
More importantly, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (a campaign operation for House Republicans), savaged Obama for “trying to balance the budget on the backs of seniors.” Walden called Obama’s chained CPI inclusion “a shocking attack on seniors,” and indicated Republicans would attack Democratic incumbents over it. He and other Republicans also showcased that their own (Ryan) budget failed to include chained CPI, the money-saver that slows the growth of benefits.
House Speaker John Boehner, of course, distanced himself from Walden’s remarks. But still, after pressuring Obama to include chained CPI in the budget, Republicans left it out of theirs. Republican challengers were bent on using Obama’s chained CPI to position themselves as defenders of Social Security beneficiaries. It was to be a major issue in 2014.
Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell challenged the president to lead on slowing entitlement growth — to include chained CPI — then ditched it for their budget, and attacked him for including it. While Boehner supported the idea, the rank and file would campaign against their own proposal, the “compromise” they demanded of the president.
This year’s budget battle (or any year’s budget battle) is as much about political posturing and base appeal as it is about the country’s economic priorities — priorities that should reflect the values and policies approved through our electoral process.
If we are to be an informed citizenry, we need, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story” — the background information. We need to know that the Pentagon budget is based on restoration of sequester cuts, a change in the force structure of the military, base realignments and closings, and termination of obsolete weapons programs.
We need to know that there are at least two ways of measuring CPI, that one of them more accurately reflects what inflation does to the income of seniors, how a chained CPI reduction of income will impact the quality of life of our elderly, and how the chained CPI “debate” was, in effect, a Walden-Ryan political squeeze play.
As I said, maybe our media will start filtering the noise. If not, maybe we should pass out earplugs.
DONNA BRAZILE is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News.