Obama’s budget: One of greatest spend-while-you-can documents in American history

February 3, 2010 10:07

WSJ Editorial

One rule of budget reporting is to watch what the politicians are spending this year, not the frugality they promise down the road. By that measure, the budget that President Obama released yesterday for fiscal 2011 is one of the greatest spend-while-you-can documents in American history.

We now know why the White House leaked word of a three-year spending freeze on a few domestic accounts before this extravaganza was released. No one would have noticed such a slushy promise amid this glacier of spending. The budget reveals that overall federal outlays will reach $3.72 trillion in fiscal 2010, and keep rising to $3.834 trillion in 2011.

As a share of the economy, outlays will reach a post-World War II record of 25.4% this year. This is a new modern spending landmark, up from 21% of GDP as recently as fiscal 2008, and far above the 40-year average of 20.7%.

In the “out years” in mid-decade, the White House promises that spending will fall all the way back to 23% of GDP. Even if you choose to believe such a political prediction, that still means Mr. Obama is proposing a new and more or less permanently higher plateau of federal spending.

And here you thought the “stimulus” was supposed to be temporary. This is also before the baby boomers retire and send Medicare and Social Security accounts soaring.

If this budget is Mr. Obama’s first clear demonstration of his long-term governing priorities, then it’s hard not conclude that this spending boom is deliberate. It is an effort to put in place programs and spending commitments that will require vast new tax increases and give the political class a claim on far more private American wealth.

Despite talk of “tough choices” in yesterday’s document, the Administration wants $25 billion in new spending for states for Medicaid, $100 billion for yet another jobs “stimulus,” big boosts in spending for low-income family programs, for health research, heating assistance and education. If Mr. Obama’s priorities become law, federal outlays will have grown an astonishing 29% since 2008.

As further proof, the White House proposes to convert long-standing “discretionary” spending that requires annual appropriations into permanent entitlement programs. A case in point is the Pell Grant program for college, which the budget would shift into the “mandatory” spending column at a cost of $307 billion over 10 years. The political goal here is to make a college education as much of a universal entitlement as Social Security.

All of this spending must be financed, and so deficits and taxes are both scheduled to rise to record levels. The deficit will hit 10.6% of GDP this year, far more than Ronald Reagan ever dreamed of. The deficits are then predicted to fall but still to only a tad below 4% of GDP on average for the rest of the decade. We wouldn’t mind those numbers if they were financing tax cuts to revive growth.

But the reality is that even these still-high deficits are based on assumptions for growth and revenue gains from record tax increases starting January 1, 2011. And what a list of tax increases it is—no less than $2 trillion worth over the decade. The nearby table lists some of the largest, all of which the Administration and its economists claim to believe will have little or no impact on growth. If they’re wrong, the deficits will be even larger.

Our favorite euphemism is the Administration’s estimate that it can get $122.2 billion in new revenue via a “reform” of the “U.S. international tax system.” Reform usually means closing some loopholes in return for lower tax rates. But this is a giant tax increase on American companies that operate overseas, and it includes no offsetting cut in the U.S. 35% corporate tax rate, which is among the highest in the world. The Administration agreed last year to drop this idea when it was seeking the help of the Business Roundtable to pass health care. But so much for that, now that the White House needs the money.

Even these tax increases won’t be enough to pay for the spending that this Administration is unleashing in its first two remarkable years. On the evidence of this budget, the Massachusetts Senate election never happened.

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