Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Chicago Bears legend Mike Ditka once quipped that team owner George Halas was so cheap that “he throws nickels around like manhole covers.”
That pretty much characterizes the drama of Washington’s budget battle of the last few weeks: Treating the small change of discretionary spending as heavy lifting.
Everyone knows the real manhole covers in the federal budget are the entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid. Polls showing public anxiety over trillion-dollar deficits combined with Republican resolve to take on the politically sensitive entitlement issue gave rise to hope that our political leadership could, if not push politics to the side, at least engage in civil discourse to find a way out of our fiscal mess.
President Obama threw cold water on that hope Wednesday with a partisan speech short on details for cutting deficits but long in political rhetoric attacking Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his trail-blazing program to tame deficits, reform entitlements hemorrhaging taxpayer dollars and right the economy to produce jobs and return the country to prosperity.
Obama could have produced his plan, acknowledged differences with Republicans without scoring political points and set the stage for a serious bipartisan drive toward fiscal reform. It turned out that was too much to expect given that Obama’s speech was sandwiched between his re-election announcement last week and Thursday’s round of raking in campaign cash in fund-raisers in Chicago. Still, his partisan attack represented a betrayal of a 2008 campaign pledge to lead the nation beyond the bitter, cynical politics of the past.
Obama’s allegation that the GOP vision would fling the elderly and poor out of the social safety net was baseless and irresponsible. It harkened back to the hysterical fear- mongering Democrats unleashed in their unsuccessful attempt to scuttle welfare reform in the 1990s. That overhaul constituted successful, responsible entitlement reform.
Ryan’s proposal to turn Medicare from a government-paid entitlement into a premium-support system of private insurance wouldn’t touch a single senior today. It’s a change at least 10 years down the road. And his plan only reflects the thinking of Obama’s deficit commission which, among other things, recommended seniors pay higher deductibles to influence their medical decisions. Obama’s nanny-state response is to give greater authority to government bureaucrats to decide what gets covered, sure to bar some treatments, and to cut doctor fees, sure to chase even more physicians from Medicare.
Ryan’s idea to turn Medicaid, now bankrupting states, into a block-grant plan would let states fashion the program to meet the needs of their populations. It doesn’t constitute abandoning the poor. It protects taxpayers from an uncontrollable escalation in costs.
Obama resurrected the issue of ending the Bush tax cuts for “the rich,” something that only a couple of months ago he agreed to extend for two years. It may make for good political rhetoric, but it’s irrelevant to the debate. Ryan calls for overhauling the tax code with lower rates and fewer deductions, credits and other write-offs. That part of his plan has been criticized as vague, but Ryan rightly leaves the details to the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.
Republicans insist tax reform be revenue neutral, meaning it would collect no more that the current system. But a tax code with low rates, a broad base and few loopholes should be a conservative goal.
Finding a path to fiscal responsibility will require give and take on both sides. In the end, the GOP should be willing to yield to revenue increases from lower taxes rates to achieve spending cuts and entitlement reforms. Such a compromise was always a long shot given the looming 2012 elections. But Obama’s partisan campaign speech probably made compromise impossible.