It’s been a frustrating couple of weeks for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.). As ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, he’s had to sit through hours of testimony and listen to endless amounts of spin regarding President Obama’s 2012 budget. And it’s not so much the president’s lack of leadership on an issue of such great exigency — deficit reduction — that Sessions finds most galling. It’s the fact that Obama and his deputies are trying to pull a fast one on the public.
“He didn’t lead, but worse than that, he falsely told the American people, ‘If you pass my budget, we’ll start living within our means and start paying down the debt,’” Sessions tells National Review Online. “We need to call on the president to be honest with the American people.”
Sessions is referring to comments the president made at a televised news conference, and again during his weekly radio address, last week. In both instances, Obama assured the American people that under his budget proposal, “we will not be adding more to the national debt.”
“What world are we living in?” Sessions asked recently during a speech on the Senate floor. What kind of “fantastical accounting” was the White House engaging in?
In the real world, Obama’s budget increases — in fact, almost doubles — the national debt from $14 trillion to $26.3 trillion over the next decade, according to the Office of Management and Budget. It includes almost $9 trillion in new spending, and has a total price tag of $46 trillion, over that same period. At no point in the ten-year window does the federal government come close to balancing its budget. The closest it ever gets is a budget deficit of $600 billion. And that’s before you take into account the fanciful nature of the administration’s projections regarding growth and interest rates.
This massive discrepancy between rhetoric and reality prompted Sessions to ask Office of Management and Budget director Jacob Lew, during his appearance before the budget committee, whether the president knew what was in his own budget. When Sessions pressed Lew further on the issue of whether Obama’s plan adds to the debt, the OMB director suggested they agree to disagree. This is where Sessions’s patience ran out. “I can’t respect a position that suggests this budget reduces the debt; if you take that position, we’re talking beyond each other,” he told Lew sternly. “I don’t think it’s a matter of opinion.”
It’s only a matter of opinion if you reside in a realm of pure fantasy, where avant-garde economic concepts such as “primary balance” — the idea that interest payments on the national debt (about $200 billion this year, projected to be $844 billion ten years from now) don’t really count toward the overall deficit — are used to justify increased spending; where lawmakers can “cut” federal spending simply by not increasing it; where the primary drivers of our debt can be ignored indefinitely. In short: Only in Washington, D.C. could Obama’s budget be considered a fiscally sincere document.
Indeed, the conventional wisdom among Beltway types is that the White House budget is purely political in scope, an opening bid in what is sure to be a prolonged and messy negotiation process between the Republican House and Democratic Senate. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner all but admitted as much in response to a question from Sessions during a budget hearing. “With the president’s plan, even if Congress were to enact it, and even if Congress were to hold to it, we would still be left with a very large interest burden and unsustainable obligations over time,” he said. “That’s why we’re having the debate.”
All the more reason the public should be outraged, Sessions says. The president’s budget should not be mere rhetorical fodder in an abstract debate. It ought to be, by even the most meager standards, a document that could be put into effect without placing the country on a path to bankruptcy. “That is not a way to begin the dialogue we need to be having,” Sessions says.