The president’s evasion tactics on the debt and deficit

posted at 4:50 pm on June 29, 2011 by Tina Korbe

If that press conference doesn’t prove it, I don’t know what will: The president who campaigned on promises of increased transparency in government has turned out to be a master of evasion (and secret negotiations) instead.

With barely more than a month to go before the Aug. 2 debt ceiling deadline, President Barack Obama still refuses to really lay bare his budget and deficit reduction plans. Since he released his proposed budget earlier this year (a budget the Congressional Budget Office said would double the national debt and never achieve a deficit of less than $748 billion), he’s done nothing but deliver general remarks — and, as CBO director Doug Elmendorf said recently, the CBO doesn’t exactly score speeches.

Obama’s platitudes might have surface appeal — of course “we can focus on jobs at the same time that we focus on debt and deficit reduction” and of course “one of the most important things we can do for debt and deficit reduction is to grow the economy” — but they don’t deliver the specifics Congress and the public so desperately need to know before a last-minute vote on the debt limit.

(Of course, those specifics Obama did mention in the press conference this afternoon don’t exactly inspire confidence in the brilliance that supposedly simmers behind closed doors in Vice President Joe Biden’s rapidly collapsing secret deficit reduction talks. Praise for payroll tax reductions and unemployment insurance combined with criticism for corporate tax cuts doesn’t exactly bode well for a plan to reduce the deficit.)

Yet, the president still claimed today that he has led on this issue — and audaciously implied a Congressional vote to raise the debt ceiling should be just as much of a no-brainer as his daughters doing their homework.

But, as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, has said:

The president cannot ‘lead from behind’ in dealing with the most pressing crisis our nation faces—our exploding debt and the increasing damage it is doing to our economy.

It’s taking too long for a proposal to be presented, and it is clear now that optimistic statements about existing progress have been too generous. It will be unacceptable for the White House talks, or any talks, to produce a controversial decision at the 11th hour and for its passage to then be demanded in panic. Such an approach heightens the risk of failure.

Congress and the American people deserve a full opportunity to review and consider any debt limit deal that is struck behind closed doors.

Sessions is not the only person to have called for greater openness. (Here, for example, are Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) saying the same thing and a Fox News panel debating the issue, as well.) But history shows us we have every reason to expect the results of the Biden talks won’t be revealed until the last minute. Consider:

The stimulus bill in February 2009 was worked out by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in closed meetings.

The president’s number-one agenda item upon assuming office was to pass comprehensive health care reform. The bill was negotiated by a few select Democrat congressmen behind closed doors without C-SPAN cameras, then presented to Congress.

And this past spring, the deal that extended the Continuing Resolution and avoided a government shutdown was worked out in private between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner, and President Obama. It was then “dropped into the legislative hopper with crisis providing motivation” to pass it or else.

To be fair, the president might have fostered an environment of secrecy, but he hasn’t received much help on the debt and deficit from Democrats in the Senate, who might have been able to prevent the need for the Biden talks in the first place, had they just passed a budget at any point in the past two years.


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