Advancing a Free Society

Social Security and the President’s Budget: My Response to Blahous

Friday, February 18, 2011

Thanks to Dr. Blahous for his rebuttal to my post “Obama Plays It Right on Social Security.” It was a welcome invitation for me to revisit my early assessment of the president’s handling of Social Security reform in his budget. As the first week of political wrangling over the president’s proposed budget comes to a close, I find myself agreeing in part and disagreeing in part with Dr. Blahous’s argument.

Where Dr. Blahous and I part ways, in my view, is in our evaluation of how damaging lawmakers' public comments on proposed legislative details - or even broad fiscal contours based on the recommendations of the president’s deficit commission - would be at this time.

I assume that we’re in agreement that lawmakers on the left and the right would have found themselves taking public positions on aspects of those budget contours. If most members of Congress could manage to be politic on this one, and by that I mean suitably vague and noncommittal, this wouldn’t be such a barrier to an agreement. But with the newly empowered Republicans in Congress and this White House, that’s not what I’d expect. Once even a rough plan was written down in the president’s budget, the public discussion would turned pretty heated and pretty specific pretty fast. I think this would have locked a sufficient number of lawmakers and the White House into positions that preclude reaching a legislative agreement, which does have to be specific.

It is possible that I mischaracterize the nature of the debate that would have ensued. Or maybe the political fallout from a heated public debate would have been fully offset by the reassurance that the president is “in” and won’t move too far left or too far right that more specific budget language would have provided to Congress. It’s educated guesses all around about what would have happened if the president had proposed a different budget. For now, I still think the response from Congress, especially but not exclusively from the Republicans, would have been damaging enough to end the chances for ongoing negotiations to be successful.

To the point that the White House choose to handle entitlement reform in this budget differently than health care reform in its previous two budgets: The White House is in a fundamentally different strategic position now than it was last year or the year before that. In the earlier presidential budgeting cycles, when the budget was presented to a heavily Democratic House and a (more) Democratic Senate, decisions were more about giving signals to political friends than trying to control the force and velocity of criticism from opponents (although there was some of this too, of course). While the White House claimed at the beginning of the health care reform process that it wanted Republican support, the president and his staff knew they didn’t need to have any Republican votes - and, in the end, they were right. Now, the president must secure Republican backing, and that means not doing things that yoke lawmakers into public positions that forestall an agreement.

That said, Dr. Blahous has made me see that I was cavalier in my earlier commentary, in particular by ignoring the message the president’s budget sends to Congress about the president’s interest in engaging in serious, good faith negotiations. The uncertainty created by the budget is, as Dr. Blahous points out, heightened by the White House’s current rhetoric about entitlement reform, which could certainly be clearer, more consistent, and more urgent. “You guys are pretty impatient,” while accurate, is not a rallying cry, nor does it inspire a lot of confidence.

At his Tuesday morning press conference, the president responded to questions about his budget’s treatment - or lack thereof - of the entitlement spending problem by saying, “This is a matter of everybody having a serious conversation about where we want to go and then ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn't tip over.”

Ideally, Obama have would talked congressional Republicans and Democrats into his little entitlement reform lifeboat before the time came to announce his budget. But once he failed to do that, saying essentially nothing about entitlement reform in the budget was the way to salvage things. If the president is actually serious about reform in the next two years, though, the White House needs to start giving stronger, non-budget signals to Congress that it’s willing to do what it takes to reach a deal.