In a town where bipartisan budget chicanery has been raised to an art form, President Obama’s latest budget proposal should be hailed as the da Vinci of fiscal obfuscation.
The president claims that his budget proposal reduces debt by $4 trillion over the next 10 years, combining $2.4 trillion in spending cuts with $1.6 trillion in tax hikes. Almost none of that is true.
Let’s start with the idea that the president’s budget would reduce the debt. That is true only using Washington math, under which a smaller increase is actually a decrease. In reality, the president’s budget adds $6.7 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years, bringing it to nearly $25.5 trillion by 2022. That would be more than 100 percent of our GDP.
And those spending cuts? The president actually counts $681 billion in cuts that were agreed to last year as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling. Shouldn’t there be some sort of statute of limitations for how long you can claim credit for cuts that you have already made? And it should probably be shorter for cuts that you fought against every step of the way. The president also counts as a cut the $741 billion we will save from not occupying Iraq over the next 10 years, and from not being in Afghanistan a decade from now. Considering that we were never going to spend that money in the first place, that seems like slightly dishonest accounting. After all, think of all the savings we can claim by not invading Syria. And, finally, $595 billion of the claimed budget cuts is actually interest savings resulting from not having to borrow for the other phony cuts.
On the other hand, the president’s budget does include plenty of new spending. For example, there is $476 billion in new spending over 10 years for transportation projects, including the president’s favorite boondoggle, “high-speed rail.” There are also the usual bailouts for profligate state governments and teachers’ unions, including $30 billion to build more schools and $30 billion to hire teachers. Another stimulus anyone?
Overall, the president would increase federal spending from $3.8 trillion in 2013 to $5.82 trillion in 2022. That might not be as big an increase there might otherwise be, but in no way can it be called a cut.
The president isn’t even honest about his tax proposals. In the speech announcing his budget plan, President Obama devoted several paragraphs to a renewed push for the so-called Buffett rule, a new 30 percent minimum tax on the rich, based on the misleading claim that Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. There is only one small problem: The president’s budget does not actually include any revenue from the Buffett rule. In fact, the budget provides no clue as to when or how such a tax might be implemented. The Buffett Rule isn’t even listed in the document’s summary of revenues and outlays. A cynic might believe that the Buffett Rule has more to do with campaign rhetoric than an actual budget plan.
Instead, what the budget does contain is a renewed call for tax increases on people and small businesses making as little as $200,000 per year. In addition, there’s the usual panoply of tax hikes on energy products, businesses, investment, and pretty much anything else the president can think of. The budget also helpfully points out that 2013 is the year in which most of the new taxes under Obamacare will take effect. Overall, the president would increase tax revenue to 20.1 percent of GDP. That’s a huge increase from the current 15.4 percent, and higher than the post–World War II average of 18.0 percent. Tax increases of that magnitude cannot help but slow economic growth and job creation.
But even if the president were to get every penny of the tax hikes he wants, his budget would never balance. The closest he would ever come would be in 2018, when the deficit would be only $575 billion. After that, deficits begin rising again, reaching $704 billion by 2022.
Fortunately for the president, he stops counting after 2022, about the time that the costs of entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security really begin to kick in, and his proposed budget does almost nothing to reform these troubled programs. One only has to look at the upward trajectory of both spending and taxes at the end of the budget window to see that president’s budget leaves us on the road to future bankruptcy.
Appearing last Sunday on Meet the Press, the president’s chief of staff — and former budget director — Jack Lew, declared that “The time for austerity is not now.” Judging by the president’s budget proposal, it’s not ever.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.