The Coming War Over the Federal Budget

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The President's Fiscal Responsibility Summit

Expect to see some drama next week around the federal budget. First, on Monday, President Obama will convene a "Fiscal Responsibility Summit" with Congressional leaders and others to "to send a signal that we are serious" about the long-term deficits faced by the federal government, focusing on entitlement programs. Obama has been sending signals that he is open to any and all ideas about how to get the federal budget back under control once our economy is back on track. Which is alarming, because a lot of ideas floating around out there are incredibly bad.

For one thing, the supporters of the Bush tax cuts still fail to acknowledge that those tax cuts account for about half of the federal debt piled up by the Bush administration before the financial crisis. Pretty much all of the Republican leaders in Congress claim to be deeply concerned about the deficit, but none have waivered in their commitment to the policies that have created much of it.

Another problem is the focus on entitlements. Medicare faces a crisis, which is the crisis of exploding health care costs that we can only contain by reforming the entire health care system. Exploding health care costs are, many analysts have concluded, the single largest cause of long-term federal budget deficits.

But several right-wing policy advocates have made a cottage industry out of claiming that Social Security must be slashed in order to save America. The most notorious is Peter Peterson, the trillionaire who has set up a foundation to promote his version of "fiscal responsibility" and who apparently has been invited to the summit. CTJ director Robert McIntyre lambasted Peterson back in 1994 in a column in the American Prospect, saying, "Along with tax cuts for the rich, he explicitly endorses tax increases for the poor and the middle class as well as sharp reductions in what average families receive from the government."

McIntyre's criticism is mild compared to the assessment progressives give Peterson today. "Peterson, who made his fortune on Wall Street," writes Robert Borosage, "never raised a word about the dangers of hyper-leveraged finance houses gambling other people's money. He never expressed qualms about the leveraged buyout artists who were using debt finance to rip apart companies. He didn't fund an all-out effort to stop Bush from raiding the Social Security surplus to pay for tax cuts for the rich. But now he wants folks headed into retirement who have already prepaid a surplus of $2.5 trillion to cover their Social Security retirements to take a cut or work a few years longer to cover the money squandered on bailing out banks, wars of choice abroad and tax cuts for the few."

The President's Fiscal Year 2010 Budget Proposal

The drama won't end at the President's Fiscal Responsibility Summit. The President is also expected to release the outlines of his budget proposal next week, and it could contain some very important tax proposals. During his presidential campaign, Obama proposed to extend the Bush tax cuts (which mostly expire at the end of 2010) for all taxpayers except those with incomes above $200,000 (or $250,000 for married couples). CTJ calculated that this would essentially mean that the Bush tax cuts are extended for all but the richest 2.5 percent of taxpayers. It would also cost well over a hundred billion dollars a year, and that's before you add the cost of Obama's promised reform of the Alternative Minimum Tax or his other tax proposals. Meanwhile, he also pledged to repeal the Bush tax cut early for those taxpayers with income above the $200,000/$250,000 threshold, but he has hedged on that promise in recent months.

Obama also campaigned on promises to close some tax loopholes (like the carried interest loophole and loopholes enjoyed by the oil and gas industry) and clean up other parts of the tax code. It will be interesting to see what components of his campaign promises are included in his budget proposal.

Interestingly, the administration has stated that it will not engage in the same gimmicks used by the previous administration to conceal the true size of the budget deficit. For example, the Bush administration always assumed that the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) would be allowed to extend its reach to tens of millions of additional taxpayers, which of course made the budget appear more balanced than it truly was, even though everyone knew that Congress would enact a "patch" every year to prevent the AMT from expanding its reach. So this budget process may be more transparent than any we've seen in years.

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