Obama Plans Summit Next Week On Long-Term Budget Difficulties

Experts could, within a day or so, make Social Security solvent for the next 50 years, says Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). "It's the politics that are very hard."
Experts could, within a day or so, make Social Security solvent for the next 50 years, says Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). "It's the politics that are very hard." (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Ceci Connolly and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 21, 2009

Less than a week after signing the largest economic stimulus package in U.S. history, President Obama is turning his attention to the nation's long-term financial condition with an unprecedented effort to rein in government spending.

To kick off the effort, the new president has invited about 130 people to the White House State Dining Room on Monday for a "fiscal responsibility" summit, a marathon session on long-term budget-busters such as Social Security, Medicare, federal purchasing and tax policy.

The session is intended in part to counter Republican criticism that the new administration's costly response to the economic crisis is needlessly pushing the country deeper into debt.

First as a senator and then as president, Obama has presided over the fastest, largest outlay of federal money since World War II. Over the past 12 months, the government has pumped more than $2 trillion into initiatives to ease the nation's financial and economic crisis, driving the federal deficit to historic proportions.

Coupled with slowing tax collections because of the recession, the spending spree is pushing the budget deficit toward $1.4 trillion this year, or nearly 10 percent of the nation's overall economy. Absent dramatic action or an economic miracle, trillion-dollar deficits are projected to persist throughout the coming decade, by some estimates, and the bills are forecast to run headlong into the skyrocketing costs of caring for the retiring baby boom generation.

"Societally, everybody's living for today and not taking steps to create a better tomorrow," said David Walker, a former government comptroller who is chief executive of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which advocates for federal fiscal responsibility.

The White House summit is the first step in a process to help the public "understand how the financial balance sheet of the federal government comes back into order," said John D. Podesta, an informal Obama adviser and president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress policy group.

Obama is hardly the first president to stage a jazzy event demonstrating his heartfelt concern about the country's long-term financial health. And participants of previous economic summits voiced skepticism that the meeting, being organized by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, will spark significant change.

"It's a media event," said former senator John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), who co-chaired a similar commission under President Bill Clinton.

Monday's bipartisan meeting, which will feature five topic-specific breakout sessions, will include lawmakers, economists and a range of special interest leaders. Invitations were still going out yesterday, but the list includes representatives from the Business Roundtable, AARP and the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that promotes balanced budgets.

The breakout sessions will be led by high-ranking administration officials: Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner will discuss the tax code. White House economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers will focus on Social Security. White House budget director Peter Orszag will lead the health-care session. And CIA Director Leon Panetta (an old budget hand from the Clinton administration) will oversee the discussion on federal budget rules.

"I think the word 'summit' suggests that decisions are going to be made, and that's clearly not possible," said Clinton budget director Alice M. Rivlin, who has been invited. "The method may be a little helter-skelter. But the objective is extremely important."

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