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In our opinion: Tough choices

Published: Tuesday, April 12 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Last Friday night's 11th-hour announcement that a federal government shutdown had been averted through $39 billion in spending cuts came with an enormous amount of self-congratulations.

President Barack Obama, who fought the cuts throughout the process, ultimately embraced the compromise as "the biggest annual spending cut in history." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also invoking adjectives like "historic," said, "Both sides have had to make tough choices. But tough choices is what this job's all about."

We agree with Sen. Reid: Federal budgeting should be about making tough choices. Our concerns, however, are twofold. First, why has it taken him so long to see that truth? Second, if last week's deal was tough, how will he handle the job of dealing with the 2012 budget?

The common characterization of last week's standoff as a strategic game of chicken between meat-axe wielding tea partiers and spendthrift but well-intentioned Democrats doesn't begin to recognize the root causes of last week's drama.

Coming to loggerheads over roughly 1 percent of a more than $3.5 trillion budget was entirely avoidable. Had the Democrats, when they controlled both houses of Congress, simply done their most basic legislative task of passing a budget for 2011, legislators would not have been arguing almost halfway through this fiscal year how to fund basic government services.

Somehow, in their zeal to overhaul health care and financial regulation, the Democratic leadership in the last Congress utterly failed its first responsibility: to pass a budget. That dereliction of duty is what set the nation on the path of continuing resolution, after continuing resolution, to near government shutdown.

But the deeper cause is found in how federal discretionary spending is being squeezed by auto-pilot spending growth in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, by defense spending and by financing the ever-increasing federal debt. Until these long-term structural issues are addressed soberly, the rancor over non-defense discretionary spending will be inconsequential.

So assuming that last Friday's deal holds (there are some on both the right and the left who will likely not approve the deal because it cuts too little or too much, depending on your viewpoint), what will the next round of budget negotiations look like?

The Republicans, through House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, have put forward a plan that recognizes the magnitude of the problem. It would control government-borne medical costs by transforming Medicare into federal support of private insurance premium payments and Medicaid into federal block grants to the states.

But the plan also rests on bold assumptions, including rapid economic growth and successful repeal of much of the Affordable Care Act. It also leaves Social Security largely untouched.

In a speech tomorrow, Obama promises to do what most expected from his initial budget: propose deficit reduction through a mix of cost controls and tax increases.

We are encouraged that substantial deficit reduction plans are now being put on the table. We hope legislators will recognize that it is indeed in the national interest to make tough choices. Last week they agreed to keep the lights on. It is not clear they are ready to agree to keep paying the bills. It is evident that they can't yet agree on priorities.

Consequently, all self-congratulations should wait until lawmakers demonstrate conclusively that they are willing to make the very tough choices that loom in this next round of budget negotiations.

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