A budget worthy of Greece

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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President Obama put forward his FY 2013 budget yesterday. Meanwhile, there was rioting in Greece. If you think these events are unrelated, there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you.

If we continue down the path proposed by the president, we will soon find ourselves in the desperate situation the Greeks are facing. As Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News yesterday, the Obama budget is “worthy of Greece.”

It’s not difficult to understand what the rioting Greeks are so upset about. They have been promised jobs, supplied by the government if nothing else is available. They have been promised early retirement with generous compensation. They have been promised health benefits at government expense. They need all of this in order to live the comfortable lives to which they have grown accustomed.

And the Greeks do know how to live comfortable lives. The Greek climate is perfect. The sea waters are blue and inviting. The beaches are endless. The islands are a paradise for locals and visitors alike. The sidewalk cafes are always filled with lively conversation about politics and sports. The food is delicious. The people are delightful. So what does the government think it’s doing agreeing to austerity measures imposed by uppity authorities in Brussels and Berlin?

But the jig is up. The party is over. The folks who have been paying for it have said no more, pas plus, nicht mehr. Yet the people riot. They demand that the party go on.

The Greeks suffer from the classic head-in-the-sand syndrome, and so, apparently, does the Obama administration. The president has proposed a 10-year budget that would, in its best year, add $575 billion to the national debt. By then, 2018, the total debt would have risen from the current $15.35 trillion to $23 trillion. By 2022 the national debt would be $25.9 trillion. Maybe Paul Krugman will finally be happy, but this is truly insanity worthy of Greece.

Never mind that whatever the president proposes for the next 10 years, even if it lays out a path to a balanced budget and a declining national debt, cannot be implemented by the current Congress. Whatever the current Congress does can be, and likely will be, changed by the next Congress and those that come later. That is the nature of our system. Two years (i.e., the next congressional election) is as far as congressional vision ever reaches. Any politician who takes credit today for political outcomes projected for a decade in the future takes the electorate for fools. We will know by the end of the year if the voters are the fools the president takes them to be.

What politicians could take credit for are actions taken today that improve the prospects for Americans 10 years from now. What is possible 10 years from now will depend, to a significant extent, on what Congress does today for the coming year, and what the next Congress does for the following two years. It will depend on members of Congress being willing to sacrifice their prospects for re-election to the public good. Who knows, the voters may not be fools. The voters may re-elect folks like Paul Ryan, folks with a little of what George H.W. Bush called the “vision thing.”

Such vision, which requires the removal of one’s head from the sand, would be a budget for FY 2013 that begins the difficult process of positioning the federal budget to allow future Congresses to take the next steps, Congress by Congress, to bring spending and the debt under control. A budget that projects deficits for each of the coming 10 years simply cannot be taken seriously.

Come November, the test voters should apply in deciding whether to re-elect the president, or particular members of Congress, is this: Did the president, or the member of Congress, support a FY 2013 budget that will improve prospects for the next Congress to improve prospects for the next Congress, and so forth, to bring out-of-control spending and the escalating national debt under control?

This is a long-term project, the sort of thing Congress and the president are not very good at doing. But that’s the only way to get it done. Congressman Paul Ryan proposed such a budget a year ago and the House approved it. The president’s own National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (the Simpson-Bowles Commission) offered a serious plan worthy of consideration. Meanwhile the president proposes continued escalation of the national debt and Senate Democrats go three years without adopting any budget at all. Both are intent on claiming to represent the 99% against the rich and privileged.

That’s a lot like rioting in the streets of Athens, demanding that the gravy train keep rolling on.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.