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Serious Debt Reduction Will Require Courage

Sen. Orrin Hatch has long been one of my favorite people in Congress. In years past, I testified in front of him several times when he chaired the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, and I always enjoyed the intellectual give-and-take. He is a gentleman, a mensch and a real legislator.

The Utah Republican is a fierce partisan and a bedrock conservative, but he has frequently tried to marry his principles with a desire to find solutions to problems, of course with the model being his storied friendship and working relationship with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

So I winced when I saw that he had apologized for his vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program when heckled about it at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“Not a lot of people are willing to say they’re sorry,” Hatch said. “But I will.”

Let’s rewind back to the fall of 2008, and imagine what would have happened if Congress had rejected the bailout (as the House did in its first iteration). The odds are overwhelming that we would have seen a global credit freeze, plunging the fragile global economy into depression, or at least a deep, deep recession. We would still be feeling the effects in a big way now. The consequences not just for jobs and economic growth, but for the very stability of democratic regimes in many countries in Eastern and Western Europe, not to mention Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, would have been profound, negative and frightening.

Instead, we had a program that was and is deeply unpopular — and wildly successful. It did not cost taxpayers its initial commitment of $700 billion, though it would have been worth the price. It didn’t cost half that amount — or a quarter, or a 10th of it. It may not cost taxpayers a dime in the end. It will go down, I am convinced, as a heroic act on the part of Congress, even though it unfortunately ended up rewarding many scoundrels and miscreants. Lawmakers who voted for it should not apologize for their votes — much less, as some craven ones have, demagogue against it.

Orrin, you did the right thing, for the right reasons. Please don’t start down a path of apologizing for being a good and conscientious public servant. You won’t gain anything with angry populists, but you risk losing some of the luster on your solid reputation.

With that off my chest, a few observations on the budget battles ahead. The House Republican appropriations plan — that is, the one adopted under threat of party mutiny by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and carried out by Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) — might actually provide a teachable moment. Most Americans, we know from surveys, have not a clue what is in the federal budget. Their anger at Washington, D.C., and cynicism about Congress have people believing it is all waste, fraud, abuse, earmarks and foreign aid.

Americans like the bulk of the programs that actually make up government. They have been told repeatedly that we can eliminate the waste, fraud and abuse, and that deficits will melt away without anybody except deadbeats feeling any pain. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), expressing support for an initiative by his colleague Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to cut $500 billion from the budget, said recently, “I could give you $350 billion worth of cuts tomorrow that nobody would miss,” adding that those who doubted it were “uninformed.”

Here is the reality. Barely 12 cents on every federal dollar spent is in the nonsecurity discretionary budget. Just less than 24 cents on each dollar goes to defense. Six and a half cents goes to interest on the debt. Almost 41 cents on every budget dollar goes to the big three social insurance programs: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And the remaining 16 cents are for “other” mandatory programs, including things such as veterans’ benefits and farm subsidies.

It is the first 12 cents that would be subject, under the House Republican plan, to cuts of up to 30 percent across the board starting next month, with many popular agencies and programs eliminated or decimated virtually on the spot, with little regard for investments in the future or basic safety nets for people in need at a time of economic turmoil. Defense gets barely a scratch. The rest of the budget is largely unscathed. When voters see what is being cut, I suspect many will say, “That’s not what we meant!”

Most “informed” observers, including Coburn, who cast a courageous vote in favor of the president’s debt commission plan, understand that we will not make serious progress on the debt without focusing on the big-ticket items and on revenues; most, other than Coburn and his colleagues, understand that the overfocus on the 12 cents could leave the U.S. hollowed out, damaging education, infrastructure, science, health and basic research, among other things, and leaving us with a malnourished and unprepared workforce in the future.

My greatest disappointment in the president’s State of the Union message was his failure to embrace at least the larger structure of his own debt commission plan and demand that Congress put it into legislative language and begin debate on its components. It would have been wise substantively and brilliant politically, putting his adversaries on the defensive.

His budget at least makes some smart priority choices, calling for an infrastructure bank and redirecting some spending toward investment in the future. But it still avoids the real, tough choices. Perhaps he can redeem the lost opportunity by seizing the initiative — starting with a Ross Perot-type television address, with hand-made charts, to educate the “uninformed” among us about what the federal government actually does with each tax dollar, and what it would take to get us out of the ditch.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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