Who Is Happy With This Budget? No One? Bueller? Bueller?

David Rodgers at Politico:

Long on tough choices, short on final answers, President Barack Obama’s new 2012 budget goes to Congress on Monday in what many hope is only an opening bid before he and Republicans come to the table on a bipartisan deficit reduction plan.

For the current year, the White House projects a more-than-$1.6-trillion deficit — even higher than the Congressional Budget Office forecast. But outlays would actually drop in 2012 and stabilize in the $3.7 trillion range, as deficits fall to $1.1 trillion in 2012 and $768 billion in 2013.

After November’s election results, no one assumes this is sufficient, but more than any of Obama’s prior efforts, the new budget makes choices that help define the man himself.

He bets big on education spending — an 11 percent increase next year — while altering the Pell Grant program to try to save the aid levels now allowed for college students from the poorest families. The National Institutes of Health would grow by about $1 billion, even as old anti-poverty programs and heating assistance would be reduced. And $62 billion in Medicare savings would be plowed back into paying physicians who care for the elderly.

Foreign wars, particularly the one in Afghanistan, would cost $118 billion, but for the first time in many years, total expenditures for the Pentagon and military would begin to fall. And while Republicans ridicule Obamat’s five-year cap on domestic spending, it has bred new restraint in the president.

Jonathan Cohn at TNR, before the budget came out:

Between the administration’s recent statements and a series of calculated leaks, we have a pretty good idea of what Obama is trying to do. He’s going to call for spending more money on education and other public investments, but he’ll also endorse enough cuts to keep overall non-defense discretionary spending at last year’s levels. Elementary and secondary school education, for example, should get a boost. But Pell Grants, for low-income college students, are going to take a hit, albeit a carefully crafted one.* There will be more money for building high-speed rail but less for helping low-income families pay their heating bills.

Is this a good thing? In absolute terms, clearly, the answer is no. The demand for Pell Grants is unusually high right now; among other things, cash-strapped states are raising tuitions at state schools just as cash-strapped students and families have fewer resources to pay them. Energy costs for next winter, when the cut in heating assistance would take effect, are likely to be higher than at any time since 2008. Unless the economic recovery quickens very suddenly, plenty of people will struggle to pay those heating bills. And those are just two examples of program reductions that will leave needy Americans even more needy.

But everything is relative, and that means judging these cuts alongside both the modest increases you’ll find elsewhere in this budget and the much larger increases you saw in previous ones. Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, will spend the next few days dissecting the Obama spending request and, as he does, he will likely find plenty not to like. But, during an interview, he also put disappointments in context:

I think [Obama's] record is very strong — major expansions in refundable tax credits for the working poor, major expansion of student financial aid for low-income students so that more of them can go to and complete college, and of course, major health reform that will extend coverage to 32 million uninsured people. This is the most impressive record of any president since LBJ.

Obama’s spending request looks even better when you consider what the Republicans would do if left to their own devices. They haven’t committed themselves to a 2012 budget just yet. But they’ve said they want a far deeper freeze than Obama’s, reducing non-defense discretionary spending to what it was in 2008. On Friday, they offered a preview of that vision when they announced their proposal for how to finance government for the remainder of the current fiscal year.

They want far more severe cuts to Pell Grants and home heating assistance, plus reductions to such essential services as food inspections and the elimination of programs like Americorps. They also want to reduce spending on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant, and Children. That initiative, known as WIC, provides nutritional assistance to expectant mothers and newborns. As Paul Krugman notes, that cut will hurt today and tomorrow, since kids who grow up malnourished are more likely to have problems later in life.

Ezra Klein:

Happy Valentine’s Day, Wonkbook readers: I know you said not to get you anything this year, but I saw the president’s 2012 budget coming out and, well, I couldn’t resist. Head here at 10:30AM EST to download it. You’re welcome.

The budget — which proposes to spend $3.73-trillion in 2012 — includes $1.1 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years. Two-thirds of that comes from spending cuts, with the largest chunk the administration’s proposed five-year freeze of non-security discretionary spending. The final third comes in tax increases. If all goes well, that’ll take the deficit down from the 10.9 percent of GDP we’re projecting for 2011 to 3% of GDP in 2017 — a much more manageable level. Entitlements, tax expenditures, and other traditionally toxic parts of the federal budget are not being addressed. The final document bears very little resemblance to the report produced by the president’s fiscal commission.

One thing to note: The document assumes that the high-income tax cuts expire in 2012, as they’re currently projected to do. The administration isn’t counting that in their $1.1 trillion of deficit reduction, but if the prediction is wrong and the Bush cuts do get another extension, they’ll wipe out most of this budget’s savings in one fell swoop. Conversely, if we decided to get serious about the deficit and let all of the Bush tax cuts expire in 2012 — yes, including the cuts for the not-so-rich — the reduction in the deficit would be vastly larger than anything envisioned in this budget. It’s an odd turn of events, but for all that this budget, and the various Republican proposals, attempt to actually do for the deficit, the biggest single thing we could do would be to do, well, nothing: Let the Bush tax cuts expire and let the health-reform law and the associated Medicare cuts and excise tax get implemented as planned. Doing by not doing: That’s the zen of deficit reduction. Somehow, I doubt Washington will find it very calming.

Peter Suderman at Reason:

Echoing the administration’s line that “the easy cuts are behind us,” Politico’s David Rogers says Obama’s 2012 budget is “long on tough choices.”  That depends on how you define “tough.” Jake Tapper of ABC News gives those alleged hard choices some context: “At no point in the president’s 10-year projection would the U.S. government spend less than it’s taking in.” By the president’s own definition, then, today’s budget plan isn’t sustainable.

Instead, the president outlines a plan that would keep the yearly deficit above $1.6 trillion this year and around $1.1 trillion the year after. The 10-year plan is to shave off about $1.1 trillion from the next decade’s total expected deficit. But in the context of a $7 trillion-plus projected deficit, this is hardly a breakthrough, or a serious fix. Last December, the president’s own fiscal commission proposed about $4 trillion in cuts, including an overhaul of Social Security. The president’s budget, by contrast, barely touches our unsustainable entitlements—and certainly doesn’t offer anything in the way of major reform.

In other words, despite the president’s recognition of the basic math underlying our country’s ongoing fiscal distress, his budget still doesn’t fix the problem that we spend more than we make. So much for confronting the facts.

Brian Darling at Redstate:

The fact of the matter is that the President is using fuzzy math to create an inflated budgetary baseline (in other words he has inflated projected spending over a 10 year period) so that he can claim cuts that don’t exist.  Today is the President’s day to pitch his plan, but the Obama Administration has to answer why his baseline is so inflated and why he is planning to raise taxes at a time of economic pain.

The President’s budget has something called the “Bridge From Budget Enforcement Act Baseline to Adjusted Baseline.”  This is the math theory used to create the fiction of cuts to the deficit.  This document has a “Budget Enforcement Act Baseline” deficit of $5.5 trillion over the 2012-2021 period and adds in some calculations to inflate that deficit baseline.

The President is actually cutting the projected deficit using projections created by his own administration.  This is a great way to make it look like he is going to balance the budget in 2021, a date where he will be far away from the Oval Office and in no way can he be blamed if his numbers do not pan out.

The Obama Administration adds in a factor, the “indexing to inflation the 2011 parameters of the Alternative Minimum Tax” which adds $1.5 trillion to the Obama baseline.  Then the Obama numbers crunchers add a continuation of the tax cuts for middle income taxpayers to the tune of $1.3 trillion.  Please note that this projection does not calculate in an extension of tax cuts for job creators — this is an projected increase in taxes starting in the first year of President Obama’s replacement.

More Obama math.  Add in a $3.3 trillion in program adjustments and $642 billion in debt services on adjustments.  Add in all of these projections to the baseline and you have adjusted the baseline from $5.5 trillion to $9.39 trillion in debt from 2012-2021.  That is how you adjust debt upward to make it look like the President’s budget is cutting spending.  You inflate projected spending over the next 10 years then increase spending at a lower rate than the baseline, you can create a “cut.”

On taxes, the President has hidden a massive increase in the gas tax.  There is a line item in the President’s budget summary tables titled “Bipartisan financing for Transportation Trust Fund” that adds up to $328 billion from 2012-2021.  In the President’s Bipartisan Debt Commission Report, they recommended a 15 cent increase in the gas tax.  The President’s budget seems to assume that his commission’s report is implemented by Congress and send to his desk.  This is an implicit endorsement of a massive increase in the price of gas at the pump in the form of increasing the federal gas tax from $18.4 cents.  If this idea does not pass, then you have a $328 billion shortfall in the projected transportation budget.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

Andrew Sullivan is back from his absence and in incredibly high dudgeon over the Obama administration’s failure to propose a more austere budget. Andrew concedes that any such proposal would fail and exact huge political damage upon Obama but somehow thinks it’s unconscionable Obama didn’t do it anyway:

The cynical political calculation is obvious and it is well put by Yglesias and Sprung. If Obama backs Bowles-Simpson, the GOP will savage him for the tax hikes, while also scaring the wits out of the elderly on Medicare. The Democratic left – just look at HuffPo today – will have a cow. Indeed, if Obama backs anything, the GOP will automatically oppose him. He has to wait for a bipartisan agreement which he can then gently push ahead. But that’s exactly why we are in this situation today. Because no president has had the balls to deal with it, and George W. Bush made it all insanely worse.

So… why would proposing something that gets shot down not be not only useful but an absolute moral obligation? I don’t really get it. It seems like the smart play is to first win the budget showdown and try to beat some sanity into the Republicans, who can’t possibly compromise right now, and then either cut a deal or (preferably) just let the GOP kill the entire Bush tax cuts for you, which would more or less take care of the medium-term deficit problem.

Anyway, that’s not even my main point. My main point is that Andrew seems to endorse the endlessly discredited doc fix myth:

But in a mere nine years, entitlements will account for 64 percent of all federal spending. And Obama just punted on his promise to cut Medicare payments to doctors, as pledged under Obamacare as a core part of the case that health insurance reform would cut the deficit. So congrats, Megan. We can chalk that up as a cynical diversion (even though Obama pledges to find savings elsewhere in the Medicare budget to make up for this lie – a promise we now have no reason to trust or believe).

Once again, the physician reimbursement is not part of the Affordable Care Act. It’s part of a poorly-drafted 1997 law. Promising to carry out the never-intended 1997 physician reimbursement cuts was not part of the Affordable Care Act. Nor is it anybody’s idea of good policy. I’ve seen this myth circulating among conservatives and hard-core libertarians but it’s the first time I’ve seen it leap over the ideological divide. One of my many attempts to dispel the myth can be found here.

Andrew Sullivan:

Chait says there is no point in Obama proposing a real solution to the country’s medium-term fiscal collapse … because of the nature of the current Republicans. That’s Jon Cohn’s and Josh Marshall’s position too. I have not exactly been easy on the GOP either and their fiscal fraudulence when it comes to the long-term debt. And yet Tom Coburn boldly came out in favor of Bowles-Simpson, and Saxby Chambliss and Kent Conrad are on board for serious long-term entitlement and tax reform. It seems a little strange to believe that a GOP just elected on a platform of ending the debt would oppose Bowles-Simpson’s outline for eventual fiscal sanity. And if they did, Obama could call them out for their fiscal recklessness.

Instead, Obama’s transformation into a “what debt crisis?” liberal means that the GOP for the first time can legitimately call Obama out on his fiscal recklessness. Like Megan, I can see the point of spending in a recession. But when you have a new opportunity to set a new fiscal compass in a slowly recovering economy, outflank the GOP on the long-term debt, and help prevent a looming fiscal collapse, and you give the lame-ass SOTU Obama gave and unveil the risibly unserious budget we got yesterday, you reveal yourself as, well, not exactly change and certainly not hope.

I am not turning on the president given the alternatives, but I am not going to use the alternatives as excuses for the president to shirk his core responsibility to the next generation. I didn’t send eight years excoriating George “Deficits Don’t Matter” Bush to provide excuses for Barack “Default Doesn’t Matter” Obama. Like other fiscal conservatives, I’m just deeply disappointed by Obama’s reprise of politics as usual – even as the fiscal crisis has worsened beyond measure in the last three years. My point is that actually being honest about the budget and what it will take to resolve its long-term crisis is not political suicide, as Chait says. It’s statesmanship. It’s what a president is for.

One reason many of us supported this president was because he pledged not to return to the cynical politics of the Washington game in which partisan maneuvring always, always outweighs the national interest. But what he is telling us now is that he is indeed a classic pol, aiming for re-election, even if the US risks becoming a fiscal banana republic in the next decade.And if you really wanted to help the economy, wouldn’t reassuring domestic industry and international markets that the US is not on an auto-pilot for default be a lot more effective than planning more broadband access (however admirable that may be)? Does the president really believe that leaving Medicare and defense and Medicaid as they are is sustainable?

Leadership is not a bullshit SOTU that dredges up that ancient cliche about a “Sputnik moment” (really, Favreau? That’s all you got?), as if Obama were Harold Wilson extolling the “white heat” of the technological revolution as some sort of cure-all. It is not new slogans like “cut and invest”, which involve trivial amounts of money in the grand scheme of the things and may do actual harm to good government programs, instead of tackling where the real money is. It isn’t trimming a pathetically small amount from defense, while still adhering to Cold War troop deployments across the entire globe.

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