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Hard choices to come with fiscal year 2011 budget

Tuesday, February 2, 2010; A16

"WE CAN no longer afford to leave the hard choices for the next budget, the next administration or the next generation," President Obama declared as he unveiled the budget. That was true. It was also last year. The fiscal 2011 budget, unveiled yesterday, falls similarly short.

This time around, the job of making hard choices is put in the hands of a presidentially created fiscal responsibility commission that is to report back after the November election. We support the notion of the commission but we are also realistic -- which is to say, pessimistic -- about its prospects, especially given the apparent unwillingness of congressional Republicans to play a responsible role in crafting the recommendations. The administration argues, with some persuasiveness, that laying out specific choices within the contours of this budget would backfire, making the proposals even deader on arrival than usual. The wiser, more productive course, officials say, is to press for the commission to succeed. In any event, the argument goes, the likelihood of serious congressional action before the election is negligible, so little is lost in trying the commission route.

Perhaps, but we've been hearing the administration's pleas for patience for some time now. The president would have more credibility if he had pressed harder, and earlier, for a legislatively created commission that could have put more pressure on Republicans to cooperate. He would have more credibility if he had pressed harder last year for some of the worthy, money-saving proposals that Congress contemptuously discarded but that he repeats this year. And we would be less anxious if the numbers were less breathtaking.

Under the path laid out by the president, absent the work of the fiscal commission, the national debt is set to rise to a staggering 77 percent of the economy by 2020. That year, interest payments on the debt alone will be $840 billion; by way of comparison, all nonsecurity discretionary spending in 2020 is estimated to be $537 billion.

And these terrifying numbers reflect the optimistic scenario. They assume that Congress accedes to all of the president's suggested cuts and savings -- for example, nearly $300 billion saved over 10 years by reducing the value to wealthy taxpayers of income tax deductions for charitable giving and mortgage interest. The administration proposed this last year and promptly dropped it when members of Congress objected. The projections also assume that, after setting aside $160 billion for war costs in 2011, the annual price tag for "overseas contingency operations" can be trimmed to $50 billion. They assume that health-care reform along the lines of the House and Senate proposals will pass -- and save $150 billion over 10 years. And they assume that the administration's relatively optimistic economic forecasts will pan out. If any of this leaves you skeptical, you are within your rights. The administration is in a difficult position largely not of its own making. It inherited a terrible economy, eight years of fiscal malfeasance and two wars. It needed to spend more, and still does, to stabilize the economy and help spur job creation. The proposed three-year freeze on nonsecurity discretionary spending sends an important signal.

But the stark fact remains that the president's budget blueprint imagines a government that, in 2020, will spend 23.3 percent of gross domestic product but take in just 18.9 percent. Those percentages are, again, based on optimistic predictions of global events and congressional discipline. And even if they are correct, they sketch out a future that is unsustainable.

The president correctly recognizes that unpleasant reality, but he has yet to begin to tell Americans what will be needed to address it. It's up to the administration to prepare and present a solution, whether through a commission or otherwise. It's up to Republicans to be responsible partners in an enterprise vital to national security.

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