washingtonpost.com
Hensarling questions Obama at House GOP conference

Friday, January 29, 2010; 2:21 PM

After addressing the GOP House Issues Conference in Baltimore on Friday, President Obama took a series of questions from the lawmakers. Here is a transcript of one of the questions posed to the president:

REP. JEB HENSARLING (R-TEX.): I'm doing well.

Mr. President, a year ago I had an opportunity to speak to you about the national debt. And something that you and I have in common is we both have small children. And I left that conversation really feeling you're sincere commitment to ensuring that our children, our nation's children do not inherit an unconscionable debt.

We know that under current law that government -- the cost of government is due to grow from 20 percent of our economy to 40 percent of our economy right about the time our children are leaving college and getting that first job.

Mr. President, shortly after that conversation a year ago, the Republicans proposed a budget that ensured that government did not grow beyond the historical standard of 20 percent of GDP. It was a budget that actually froze immediately non-defense discretionary spending. It spent $5 trillion less than ultimately what was enacted into law.

And unfortunately, I believe that budget was ignored.

And since that budget was ignored, what were the old annual deficits under Republicans have now become the monthly deficits under Democrats. The national debt has increased 30 percent.

Now, Mr. President, I know you believe -- and I understand the argument; I respect the view -- that the spending is necessary due to the recession. Many of us believe, frankly, it's part of the problem, not part of the solution, but I understand and I respect your view.

But this is what I don't understand, Mr. President. After that discussion, your administration proposed a budget that would triple the national debt over the next 10 years. Surely you don't believe 10 years from now we will still be mired in this recession. It proposed new entitlement spending and moved the -- the cost of government to almost 24.5 percent of the economy.

Now, very soon, Mr. President, you're due to submit a new budget and my question . . .

OBAMA: Jim (sic), I know there's a question in there somewhere, because you're making a whole bunch of assertions, half of which I disagree with.

(LAUGHTER)

And I'm having to sit here listening to them. At some point, I know you're going to let me answer.

HENSARLING: That's . . .

OBAMA: All right.

HENSARLING: That's the question.

You are soon to submit a new budget, Mr. President. Will that new budget, like your old budget, triple the national debt and continue to take us down the path of increasing the cost of government to almost 25 percent of our economy? That's the question, Mr. President.

OBAMA: All right. Jim (sic), with all due respect, I've just got to take this last question as an example of how it's very hard to have the kind of bipartisan work that we're going to do, because the whole question was structured as a talking point for running -- running a campaign.

Now, look, let's talk about the budget, once again, because I'll go through it with you line by line.

The fact of the matter is, is that when we came into office, the deficit was $1.3 trillion. $1.3 trillion. So -- so when you say that suddenly I've got a monthly budget that is higher than the annual -- or a monthly deficit that's higher than the annual deficit left by Republicans, that's factually just not true, and you know it's not true.

And what is true is that we came in already with a $1.3 trillion deficit before I had passed any law. What is true is, we came in with $8 trillion worth of debt over the next decade.

Had nothing to do with anything that we had done. It had to do with the fact that in 2000, when there was a budget surplus of $200 billion, you had a Republican administration and a Republican Congress, and we had two tax cuts that weren't paid for, you had a prescription drug plan -- the biggest entitlement plan, by the way, in several decades -- that was passed, without it being paid for, you had two wars that were done through supplementals, and then you had $3 trillion projected because of the lost revenue of this recession.

That's $8 trillion. Now, we increased it by $1 trillion because of the spending that we had to make on the stimulus.

I am happy to have any independent factchecker out there take a look at your presentation versus mine in terms of the accuracy of what I just said.

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: Now, going forward, here's the deal.

I think Paul, for example, head of the Budget Committee, has looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal. I've read it. I can tell you what's in it. And there are some ideas in there that I would agree with, but there are some ideas that we should have a healthy debate about, because I don't agree with them.

The major driver of our long-term liabilities, everybody here knows, is Medicare and Medicaid and our health care spending. Nothing comes close.

Social Security we could probably fix the same way Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan sat down together and they could figure something out. That is manageable.

Medicare and Medicaid, massive problem down the road. That's where -- that's -- that's going to be what our children have to worry about.

Now, Paul's approach, and I don't -- I want to be careful not simplifying this, because I know you've got -- you've got a lot of detail in your plan -- but, if I understand it correctly, would say we're going to provide vouchers of some sort for current Medicare recipients at the current level. No?

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: 55 and -- well, no, I understand. I mean, there's a grandfathering in, but just for future beneficiaries. Right?

That's why I said I didn't want to -- I want to make sure that I'm not being unfair to your proposal, but I just want to point out that I've -- I've read it.

And the basic idea would be that at some point, we hold Medicare costs per recipient constant as a way of making sure that that doesn't go way out of -- way out of whack. And I'm sure there are some details that . . .

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WIS.): (inaudible) a blend of inflation and health inflation. The point of our plan is because Medicare, as you know, is a $38 trillion unfunded liability . . .

OBAMA: Right.

RYAN: . . . it has to be reformed for younger generations, because it won't exist because it's going bankrupt.

And the premise of our idea is, look, why not give people the same kind of health care plan we here have in Congress? That's the kind of reform we're proposing for Medicare.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: Well, look, as I've said before, this is an entirely legitimate proposal. The problem is two-fold.

One is that, depending on how it's structured, if recipients are suddenly getting a plan that has their reimbursement rates going like this, but health care costs are still going up like that, then over time the way we're saving money is essentially by capping what they are getting relative to their costs.

Now, I just want to point out -- and this brings me to the second problem -- when we made a very modest proposal as part of our package -- our health care reform package to eliminate the subsidies going to insurance companies for Medicare Advantage, we were attacked across the board by many on your aisle for slashing Medicare. You remember? "We're going to start cutting benefits for seniors." That was -- that was the story that was perpetrated out there; scared the dickens out of a lot of seniors.

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: No -- no, but here's my point.

If the main question is going to be what do we do about Medicare costs, any proposal that Paul makes will be painted factually from the perspective of those who disagree with it as cutting benefits over the long term.

Paul, I don't think you disagree with that -- that -- that there is a political vulnerability to doing anything that tinkers with Medicare. And that's probably the biggest savings that are obtained through Paul's plan.

And I raise that not because we shouldn't have a serious discussion about it. I raise that because we're not going to be able to do anything about any of these entitlements if what we do is characterize whatever proposals are put out there as, "Well, you know, that's -- the other party's being irresponsible. The other party is trying to hurt our senior citizens. That the other party is doing X, Y, Z."

That's why I say if we're going to frame these debates in ways that allow us to solve them, then we can't start off by figuring out, A, who's to blame; B, how can we make the American people afraid of the other side.

And unfortunately, that's how our politics works right now, and that's how a lot of our discussion works. That's how we start off. Every time somebody speaks in Congress, the first thing they do, they stand up and all the talking points -- I see Frank Luntz up here sitting in the front.

He's -- he's already polled it . . .

(LAUGHTER)

. . . and he said, you know, "The way you're really going to -- I've done a focus group, and, you know, the way we're going to really box in Obama on this one or make Pelosi look bad on that one" -- I know -- I like Frank. We've had conversations between Frank and I. But that's how we operate. It's all tactics, and it's not solving problems.

And so the question is, at what point can we have a serious conversation about Medicare and its long-term liability, or a serious question about -- a serious conversation about Social Security, or a serious conversation about budget and debt in which we're not simply trying to position ourselves politically.

That's what I'm committed to doing. We won't agree all the time in getting it done, but I'm committed to doing it.

Copyright 2010 FDCH e-Media, Inc.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company