President Obama said last night he was going to request $1.5 billion to help address the swine flu outbreak. I wish he had also promised to find the dough to pay for this initiative. But, he didn’t.
This follows a troubling, and ongoing, pattern. Obama and the congressional Democrats say they recognize the consequences of burgeoning deficits and promise to address the problem—next time.
They did this with the pork-laden stimulus bill (what’s up with all this pig business, anyway). After signing the bill, with its $8 billion in earmarks, Obama vowed it would be the last time he’d approve such largess. Now, Obama has two pre-teen daughters. He must know how well this technique works.
The $3.5 trillion budget resolution Congress passed yesterday is yet another example of this mañana fiscal policy. Just one example: It makes room for $764 billion in tax cuts over the next five years, but instructs the House Ways & Means and Senate Finance committees to find a mere $97 billion in offsetting revenue raisers.
The resolution allows Congress to patch the Alternative Minimum Tax for another three years without finding the more than $200 billion it would need to make up the foregone revenue. Democrats seem to have adopted the same theory of budgeting that Republicans loved so well when they were running Washington: We never intended the AMT to hit middle-income taxpayers, so we don’t have to pay for fixing the mess.
Trouble is, we eventually will have to repay the $200 billion no matter what fiscal blinders we put on. Denial, as they say, ain’t just a river in Egypt.
The current argument for this irresponsibility, of course, that that we are in the midst of a recession and any spending cuts or tax hikes will slow the recovery. But Congress can rework the tax code to pay for a permanent AMT fix. Remember, this is a five-year budget that carries well beyond the likely end of the current downturn.
And at a time when it is pumping out trillions of dollars in stimulus, government can surely find $1.5 billion to pay for a swine flu initiative. It may well be that Washington needs the money to combat a potentially deadly pandemic. But it is time politicians think differently about even emergency spending. Obama should be asking what other projects can be deferred or cancelled to pay for this effort, rather than borrowing another billion-and-a-half at the drop of a Kleenex.
Fiscal prudence is never easy, and politicians rarely get credit for it from voters. But it would be nice if Obama and congressional Democrats started acting as if budget discipline mattered, instead of just talking about it. The swine flu money would be a nice place to start.