Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Funding Opinion

Obama Punts on Budget, House Republicans Recover

By Rick Hess — February 15, 2011 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I think the Washington Post editorial page said it best. “The President punted. Having been given the chance, the cover and the push by the fiscal commission he created to take bold steps to raise revenue and curb entitlement spending, President Obama, in his fiscal 2012 budget proposal, chose instead to duck.” To me, it seems that anyone serious about “investment,” “winning the future,” and doing right by our kids and grandkids has to be serious about getting the budget into rough balance over the next several years. Otherwise, unrestrained entitlement spending and a rapidly expanding public debt threaten to put us all at risk.

President Obama entered office saying it was time to “stop kicking the can down the road,” and explaining that the economic crisis required emergency spending, but that he would move to restore fiscal order and make the hard choices as soon as he could. Barely a year ago, he offered the creation of his fiscal commission as proof that he was willing to lead. Well, his bipartisan commission delivered a package of thoughtful, tough, well-received spending cuts, entitlement reforms, and tax increases that would move the nation towards sound footing. The President mostly ignored them, instead proposing a budget that will boost federal borrowing by $7.2 billion over the next decade (“trimmed” from $8.3 billion--oh, and that’s assuming that the administration’s optimistic economic projections play out).

If the administration is unwilling to address the 41% of the budget devoted to entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security), then it requires either massive tax increases or draconian cuts elsewhere if we’re to start reining in the deficit. Other things equal, I’d rather see us carve enormous savings out of entitlements by following the fiscal commission’s lead and moving to start pushing Social Security eligibility back a bit, adjusting the COLA formula for new retirees, and taking a whack at Medicare and Medicaid subsidies. But the President has made it clear that he lacks the stomach for such measures. Indeed, not only does Obama’s budget ignore entitlements--even with the powerful cover afforded by his fiscal commission--but administration spokespeople have made it very clear in recent days that he’ll be only too eager to demagogue Republicans if they move to cut entitlements or even trim subsidies to the affluent elderly.

The only path left for Republicans who oppose dramatic tax increases is to take a knife to the rest of the budget. That’s what we saw in the just-released “continuing resolution” proposal by House Republicans. For all the wailing from the usual suspects, it looks to me like the Republicans are proposing sensible, relatively modest trims to special education, Pell Grants, and Title I, while going root and branch after a slew of small programs. The Republicans propose to save more than $1 billion by zeroing out more than 15 small programs like the Even Start Family Literacy program, Education Technology State Grants, and mathematics and science partnerships.

After all, even the administration has admitted these programs aren’t working well--as it has proposed consolidating or eliminating them. The difference is that, despite our trillion-dollar deficit, Obama’s budget seeks to funnel those dollars into grants and programs, even while proposing new ones.

At a time when there’s bipartisan agreement that our fiscal plight is unsustainable, and after a slew of federal edu-aid in recent years, the President has proposed increasing ed spending by more than 4%. The Republicans’ proposal, a relatively modest cut of about $5 billion out of an ED budget of $70-odd billion, is far more appropriate if one is concerned about asking future generations to fund our profligacy. This kind of measured belt-tightening is an important gesture, even if it amounts to only a pebble amidst our sea of red ink.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.