Secrecy in Budget Talks to Obama's Advantage

You can sum up in one word why Republicans are finding it tough to build public support for major spending cuts before the debt limit might be raised.  That word is “secrecy.”

By agreeing to closed-door meetings, Republicans have enabled President Obama to mislead the country about his positions and to mischaracterize the GOP’s goals.  Using his bully pulpit, the President can promote a false picture of what’s gone on outside of the public view, while the other side is muted.

Obama’s messaging has been trumpeted loudly by the media.  Meanwhile, details leaked from the meetings that don’t jibe with his message have gone mostly unheralded.  Those details reveal that the “cuts” Obama supposedly would accept are mostly an agreement that politicians would reduce spending years from now—but almost nothing would happen any time soon.

For example, Obama’s supposed willingness to raise the age of Medicare eligibility?  Turns out it wouldn’t happen until 2029, and then it would rise by only one year, to age 67.  That ballyhooed $1 trillion in “agreed” spending cuts?  Turns out to be maybe $55 billion, with only $2 billion of that in the first year.

Oh, and by the way, the President also wants more than $100 billion in new spending added to the package.  No wonder the White House insisted on secrecy in its budget talks!

The false nature of Obama’s pretended compromises should have been declared daily.  But by agreeing to closed doors, the GOP has been complicit in not publicizing those details.  And because alternative legislation was not being offered (until “Cut, Cap and Balance” this week), there was no attention-grabbing action to rival the private talks.  That has enabled the President, his team and his teleprompter to control the media portrayals of the talks.

Rather than highlighting how they want only legitimate spending cuts (in both discretionary and entitlement programs), the GOP gets stuck with a false image of caring only about “tax cuts for the rich.”  Because most Americans no longer pay federal income taxes, this paints the GOP into a corner.

It’s taken too long for details to leak out, so they have become stale news to most media.  Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.) was the first whistle-blower to sound the alarm about the phony claims and the budget gimmicks.  The supposed $1 trillion in agreed-upon cuts, Kyl told National Review Online, would actually be only around $55 billion.  Meantime, Democrat negotiators are talking about $113 billion in new spending.

As National Review Online‘s Andrew Stiles writes:  “Another point of contention in the talks, Kyl explains, is that roughly 75% of the “savings” proposed in non-health-care mandatory spending are achieved through revenue mechanisms such as fee increases, which technically aren’t classified as tax hikes, but certainly highlight the Democrats’ fundamental unwillingness to reduce spending.
Kyl says at this point he can identify only about $55 billion in actual reductions to federal spending.

Only after the talks collapsed did we learn that a scant $2 billion would be cut from discretionary spending during the next year.  The Washington Times reports, “That’s a mere 0.3% cut overall.”

The $2 billion first-year figure comes from White House Budget Director Jack Lew.  So if the $1 trillion claim were to be believed, it must be based on the fantasy notion that future Congresses will make the remaining $998 billion in cuts.

Talk of other options—including a $4 trillion-plus grand plan, have similar problems:  The supposed savings are back-loaded, just as the supposed $35 billion savings from negotiations this spring turned out to be only $350 million in current savings—if even that much.

It’s also unclear whether those minimal cuts are true reductions from this year’s spending levels, or proposed reductions in already-planned increases.  Only with Washington, D.C.’s fuzzy math can spending go up even when officials claim to cut it.

But any first-year savings would be dwarfed by the new spending that Kyl reports Obama wants to include in the package:  Another $43 billion for unemployment insurance.  And $33 billion more for Pell grants.  And $10 billion for medical grants.  And $27 billion for the medical profession’s perennial “Doc Fix.”

The falsity of Obama’s claimed willingness to adjust entitlements was finally revealed this week by Politico:  “The record of exchanges between Obama and the speaker do show major structural changes to Medicare have been discussed, albeit on a time line that [House Speaker John] Boehner appears to have found frustrating.  Medicare’s eligibility age would be raised to 67 over many years, but would only reach 66 by 2029 under one proposal.  And while the administration opened the door to requiring many more Medicare recipients to pay steeper income-related Part B premiums, that would have limited impact in the first 10 years.”

By conducting talks in secret, all parties made it easier to use budget gimmicks and misleading rhetoric in their planning.  They have limited the ability of the public in general and Tea Party groups in particular to track and prepare for whatever plan might ultimately be unveiled.

The closed-door negotiations were designed to benefit political interests more than the public interest.  By dragging on for weeks, the talks brought us closer to deadlines.  That makes it easier to create a hyped-up sense of urgency, pushing Congress to act with haste rather than with wisdom.

Government should make its big decisions in the open, not in private.