A workable budget plan
Rep. Scott Rigell offers a sequester alternative that makes sense.
SEQUESTRATION CONTINUES to impede national governance. The latest example: President Obama’s veto of a $612 billion national defense authorization measure. Since defense authorization bills set national security policy and future plans for paying and equipping the armed forces, presidents rarely veto them. And, in the interests of certainty for America’s military, at a time of complex international threats, Mr. Obama should not have vetoed this one. Sequestration gave him a reason, or an excuse, to do so, however, since Congress sought to pay for the bill by breaking through sequestration budget caps for the military, but not domestic priorities. “Irresponsible,” Mr. Obama said.
Meanwhile, the Ryan-Murray spending plan, which relaxed those budget caps for both defense and non-defense spending, for two years, paid for by a patchwork of budgetary offsets, expires Dec. 11. Thereafter, the federal government faces an abrupt return to lower budget caps unless the polarized Congress comes up with another shortterm extension such as the one it enacted Sept. 30. Whether even that modest fix can happen amid intra-GOP fighting, no one knows. Ideally, Republicans and Democrats would work on a long-term plan to lift sequestration for both military and domestic programs, paid for with a mix of taxes and savings — the latter including entitlements, which are the true cause of the country’s fiscal predicament.
Anyone looking for ideas should read the bill Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) introduced Wednesday. Mr. Rigell’s proposal would restore 75 percent of the sequester cuts, a total of $765 billion in restored spending (over 10 years), divided evenly between defense and domestic priorities, just as President Obama wants. It would pay for $200 billion of this through new revenues, achieved by eliminating tax breaks for upper-income Americans and applying the more accurate “chained CPI” inflation adjustment to the tax code — huge concessions to the Democrats from a member of the no-new-taxes party.
The vast majority of the remaining savings in Mr. Rigell’s plan come from entitlements, including a series of Medicare reforms, many drawn from Mr. Obama’s past proposals, worth $455 billion. He would apply the chained CPI to Social Security, thus reducing future cost-of-living adjustments, but with built-in protections for the poorest beneficiaries. Mr. Rigell unfortunately gives back about $25 billion by repealing the medical device tax, but other than that shortsighted attack on Obamacare’s funding, the bill is a remarkably balanced, non-ideological approach.
And, of course, it’s all too easy to see how it could be picked apart by the usual interest groups, dressing up their selfish demands in the usual lofty rhetoric. What’s impressive about Mr. Rigell’s plan, however, is how little sacrifice it imposes on the vast majority of people. In return, the country would get a government with a more sustainable funding base; indeed, we’d get a government that is capable of governing, since it would have recovered financial latitude to meet changing public needs.
The alternative is more zero-sum partisan conflicts — like the one that produced Mr. Obama’s veto — with all that entails for the United States’ ability to defend, and govern, itself.