Spending cuts aren't enough. It's time to fix the budget

By Maya MacGuineas, CNNMoney guest columnist


Commentary: Maya MacGuineas is the director of the fiscal policy program at the New America Foundation.

President Obama's budget was such a tremendous letdown and a massive punt, I have to wonder if part of the White House's calculation was: "Don't worry, people will forget about the budget in no time." It makes me want to start every column for the rest of the year with: "The president's budget was such a tremendous letdown and a massive punt ... "

However, the details are out there. So I will spend my energy focusing on Republican spending proposals and what they might -- and might not -- lead to. (Please note that I reserve the right to return to the topic of how Obama's budget was such a tremendous letdown and a massive punt.)

The House Republicans' effort to cut $60 billion from the non-security discretionary portion of the budget is helpful for reasons they would and would not have anticipated. It is also mistargeted and likely to backfire.

First, the good: For years, there's been plenty of talk about the need for fiscal responsibility. But that's all it has been: Talk.

The talk has gone like this: Deficits = bad. Responsible budgeting = good. Yes, yes, yes and then ... a flurry of new spending increases and tax cuts. So much for fiscal responsibility.

Now, it is pretty much certain that Congress, after a bloody fight and maybe even a government shutdown, will make some real cuts in the non-security piece of the budget.

I would have delayed these cuts for another year and made some different choices. The policy challenge the past few years has been about the delicate dance between stimulating the economy and starting to bring the debt down without derailing the recovery. My preference would have been to wait another year to start slowly phasing in real cuts.

Still, in the grand scheme of things, the Republicans are doing something important here. They are actually cutting spending, not just talking about it or slowing the growth of it. This will turn out to be a defining moment in starting to move the budget back in the black.

But when it comes to fixing the budget, the GOP effort won't work. The best this approach can achieve -- the best -- is probably a quarter of the savings we need to bring the national debt back down to a manageable level. Forget balancing the budget. You can't fix a massive multi-trillion dollar problem by focusing on one-eighth of the budget. You just can't.

So that brings us to entitlement reform. No one has been willing to go first. The president's budget (did I mention it was a tremendous letdown and a massive punt?) is virtually silent on any meaningful reforms to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Without addressing those, the budget will never be fixed.

Last year, Republicans left entitlement reform out of their Pledge to America and stooped to an absurd low when promising not to cut Medicare. But Medicare will have to be cut. Politicians will have to get real and offer up significant structural reforms to the major entitlement programs; otherwise they will have to decimate the domestic discretionary portion of the budget and still run us into a fiscal wall.

Maybe this exercise will make it absolutely clear that all the hard work of budget cutting will be for naught unless politicians turn their attention to reforming our unsustainable entitlement programs. That would be a productive outcome of what is currently a frustratingly mistargeted discussion about cutting a very small sliver of the budget.

But if we don't make that change soon, I predict these aggressive cuts will backfire on the House Republicans. The cuts will only make voters realize that they actually like some of the programs the government funds. It will be bitter medicine for voters to swallow if Congress cuts those programs and still doesn't fix the budget.

Fixing the budget will be tough policy, tough politics and tough negotiations. The only way to make the heavy lift worth it is if we actually succeed -- if we actually fix the budget.

Maybe, just maybe, the lesson of this exercise will be the recognition that we have to expand the reforms to all areas of the budget. It's not enough to make really tough choices without getting a healthy budget in return.

Think of it this way: It's the reward of losing weight that makes dieting worth it. Those failed diets? Not so fun.  To top of page

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