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Deficits, Promises and Destiny

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In about a month, the Republican majority on the House Budget Committee will present its concurrent budget resolution for fiscal year 2012, which by law will include their proposed 2012 annual budget and their projection of the budgets (spending, revenues and the resulting deficit, surplus or balance) for the following nine years.

It may not be overstatement to assert that this presentation may determine whether Republicans win or lose the 2012 elections and whether the United States government acts in time to save our economic future from ruin.

A month ago, President Obama announced his budget proposal. It projected $7.2 trillion (adjusted to $9.4 trillion with later developments) to be added to the national debt over 10 years -- and made no proposal to reduce the burgeoning growth of the annual deficit due to out-of-control cost rises in Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and other entitlements. Even with unrealistically rosy economic projections -- such as no recessions in next decade -- the Office of Management and Budget still projected annual deficits of $774 billion in 2021.

Even the liberal media -- from the Washington Post on down -- harshly criticized the president's budget proposal as an abdication of leadership on the central domestic issue of our age. But many savvy Washington pros -- both Democrats and Republicans -- think that with this budget proposal, the president may have positioned himself to savage the GOP (and thus gain re-election) should the House GOP make any real effort at bringing the budget under control.

Can the House GOP propose a budget that brings the deficit under control? Even if we consider "control" to be less than 3 percent of GDP (rather than actual balance), it will be painfully difficult -- and for some GOP freshman, supporting such a budget proposal will violate some of their campaign promises. Here is why.

Most Republican members of Congress promised not to raise taxes. Most promised to deal with the out-of-control deficits and debt. Many promised not to cut Social Security or Medicare.

That first promise, not to raise taxes, means that the Republican-proposed 10-year budget must keep the Bush tax cuts in place for all 10 years. If the Budget Committee does so, then the Congressional Budget Office (the official score keeper) will find that $2 trillion in revenues will be "lost" (notwithstanding that many of us believe that a supply-side marginal income tax cut dynamically increases economic activity (and thus federal revenues).

So, before the budget committee even starts reducing spending, it will be $2 trillion in the deficit hole (compared to Obama's position).

Most GOP members either promised or hinted at not cutting benefits on Social Security and minimal reductions of Medicare -- at least for anyone 55 or over.

One hears steady rumors (but only rumors) that the GOP majority on the Budget Committee is not going to touch Social Security, will seek minimally greater market-based efficiencies for Medicare and do most of its entitlement cuts in Medicaid (health aid to the poor).

When they combine those efforts with keeping the Bush tax cuts for the entire 10 years, they will be hard-pressed to come in with a budget deficit in 2021 of less than half a trillion dollars. More likely, they are looking at an annual deficit in 2021 of about $600 billion dollars -- only $170 billion less than Obama's proposal.

So, to get the deficit down to a level that the world bond market -- and GOP voters -- consider to be under control, the House GOP will have to propose both letting the Bush tax cuts expire at some point and reducing net costs substantially on Social Security and Medicare.

If they do that, not only might many GOP and independent voters turn on their GOP congressmen in November 2012, but the members may also thereby break their promises not to raise taxes, nor touch Social Security, etc. What should the GOP do?

Back in the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan made three major promises: 1) Increase our military strength, 2) cut income taxes and 3) reduce the budget deficit. Fortunately for Reagan, he had the foresight during the campaign to give his priorities to those three promises (in the order I have listed them). He was able to keep Nos. 1 and 2, but could not keep the budget-cutting promise.

Today, there are three objectives or promises that many Republican congressmen have: 1) Get the deficit and national debt under control, 2) don't raise taxes and 3) protect full benefits of Social Security and most of Medicare for those over 55.

The GOP will have to decide which of those laudable objectives have priority over the others -- because I would be amazed (but delighted) if they can keep any two of them, let alone all three.

For me, the overwhelming historical obligation of our government -- and the reason the Republicans were given the majority in the House -- was to get the deficit and debt under control.

The GOP will risk losing its majority either if they propose coming in with a half-trillion-dollar deficit in the 10th out year -- or if they propose getting the deficit down by lowering costs of Social Security and Medicare and letting Bush tax cuts expire.

They should listen to the command of history and take their chances with the electorate by proposing to solve the fiscal crisis -- even at the price of not honoring their subordinate promises.

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