Jonathan Cohn

A Budget Equal to its Political Moment

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By now, readers of this space should be familiar with Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He, and they, are among the most respected authorities on budget matters in Washington. Reliably attentive to the needs of Americans that depend on government programs, but also committed to fiscal responsibility, they are as honest as they are thorough. They also happen to be good at translating policyspeak into English.

A little while ago the Center posted Greenstein's official assessment of the budget--which, as I telegraphed in a previous blog item, is generally positive. 

The President’s budget would take an important step toward addressing the nation’s long-term fiscal challenge, cutting the deficit enough to stabilize the debt as a share of the economy for most of this decade. ... The President’s budget achieves this goal by cutting domestic discretionary programs, securing savings in entitlement programs, limiting defense expenditures, and raising revenues primarily by curbing a plethora of tax loopholes. At the same time, it does not propose the immediate and severe cuts in domestic discretionary programs that House Republicans are proposing, which would weaken the economy (and thereby cost many jobs) before it can safely absorb such austerity measures, eviscerate key programs and services, and render the federal government unable to meet some critical national needs.

Greenstein acknowledges that the Obama budget request does not make nearly enough progress on stabilizing government finances in the long run. But he also makes an important point about the political environment and the constraints it imposes on forward-thinking officials:

...had the budget included a large array of specific proposals for longer-term deficit reduction ranging from increased taxes to changes in Social Security that likely would have made it harder, not easier, for the Administration and Congress to eventually reach bipartisan agreement on those matters. Specific presidential proposals would have invited immediate attacks from lawmakers across the political spectrum and almost certainly led to pledges by scores or hundreds of members of Congress never to agree to them. That, in turn, would have made it harder for negotiators to reach agreement on large, longer-term deficit-reduction measures. A goal at this point should be to keep policymakers from taking various specific proposals off the table before negotiations even commence.

That problem occurs even in normal political times. But, these are not normal political times. The atmosphere is far more toxic, and the tendency to launch immediate incendiary attacks on specific deficit-reduction proposals for political gain far greater, than in the past when successful bipartisan negotiations took place.

Greenstein goes on to cite two examples of the toxic atmosphere: The caustic attacks on the Affordable Care Act's cost controls and the near-instant rejection of President Obama's recent proposal to reform unemployment insurance. In both cases, Greenstein notes, Obama was proposing ideas that should have generated strong support from conservatives. But, in both instances, Republicans responded with vitriol.  

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