Deficit neutrality, my tush!

Friday, October 16, 2009

It’s fashionable nowadays, particularly in the Oval Office and halls of Congress, to talk about healthcare reform legislation that is “deficit neutral.” The President has promised never to sign a bill that increases the budget deficit. The idea is that any legislation he approves will somehow be self-financing by virtue of the savings it makes possible and/or new tax revenues it generates. It’s an extraordinary promise from a President who, at least so far, his already increased our budget deficit, with reckless abandon, to levels that make the Bush Administration’s accomplishments seem thrifty by comparison.

The problem here is that the concept of “budget neutrality” is off point. Way off point.  The objective, to stay with the example of healthcare reform legislation, is to fix the problems which necessitate that reform, and to do so as effectively and as inexpensively as possible. If, in the process, it turns out that we need to spend more money than the program generates in savings and new taxes, well then, in order to keep the overall budget deficit from increasing, we’ll have to reduce spending somewhere else. It’s a big budget. I’m sure we can find something to cut.

Promising deficit neutrality for a single piece of legislation, even one involving this much money, is sort of like believing you can clean up a polluted river by showering the next time you go swimming in it.

In effect, the President and Congress are telling us that they’re willing to pass inferior legislation, as long as it, and it alone, doesn’t create any additional deficit – which begs the question of what they should be doing to reduce the ocean of red ink in which our government is already drowning.

“Deficit neutrality” is a distraction. See how concerned the President and Democrats in Congress are about government waste and overspending? Come hell or high water, they’re not going to let anything as important as healthcare legislation make the budget deficit any worse – as if that’s really something they can control or predict. (Predicting the cost of legislation this complex is hard enough. You also have to accurately estimate federal revenues.) Who cares if it means settling for something well short of universal coverage or failing to meet other major objectives of healthcare reform?

Just pass the damn legislation, and let me get on with the other items on my campaign checklist before the situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan get any worse!

Ooo. Did President Obama say that out loud? Forget to take off his mike when he went to the men’s room? Of course not.

To be precise, here’s exactly what President Obama promised during his September 9 speech before a joint session of Congress and a national television audience:

And here’s what you need to know. First, I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits — either now or in the future. I will not sign it if it adds one dime to the deficit, now or in the future, period.

And then he added,

And to prove that I’m serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don’t materialize.

What’s the point of limiting the quality and scope of healthcare legislation for reasons of deficit neutrality, as he promised in the first three sentences of this excerpt from his speech, if only to be willing to make cuts elsewhere if it turns out it wasn’t deficit neutral after all?

The American people deserve better, but we are forever hopeful and easily fooled. The first is one of our most endearing attributes as a nation. The second is why we keep electing the wrong people to Congress and The White House.

-wf


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