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What others say: Anemic Democratic plan

The Chicago Tribune

Published: Wednesday, March 20 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

The following editorial appeared recently in the Chicago Tribune:

There is no one alive more revered and beloved among Democrats than Bill Clinton, who showed at last year's national convention what a rock star he is. One of his most historic achievements as president was something that eluded Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush: balancing the federal budget. He did it four straight years. For Democrats, it was cause for great pride.

But that was a long time ago. Last week, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., produced a budget plan - the first one to come from the Senate in four years. She did so soon after House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., unveiled his.

The two blueprints have many differences, but the biggest of all is that Ryan's aims at eliminating the annual federal deficit by 2023. Murray's would balance the budget ... well, never. In 2023, the Democratic budget's deficit would be $566 billion. Over the coming decade, her plan would add $5.2 trillion to the total debt - more than four times the $1.2 trillion the Ryan version would add.

The House GOP approach has been criticized on several grounds - making excessive cuts in domestic discretionary spending, promising lower income tax rates without specifying how the lost revenue would be made up and relying on the repeal of Obamacare, which is not going to happen anytime soon. But you can't fault Ryan's budget for aiming too low.

It sets a bold marker that would reverse the government's slide toward insolvency. It establishes a sensible goal that voters can understand and support.

The Democrats, unfortunately, are feigning fiscal responsibility instead of practicing it. They would boost outlays by 58 percent over the coming decade - which, by the way, would follow a similar hike over the past decade. The renewed spending binge explains why the Democratic plan's annual deficits would remain high despite its tax increases designed to bring in nearly $1 trillion in additional revenue.

As a share of the economy, the debt Democrats envision would hardly shrink at all - going from 77 percent of gross domestic product this year to 70 percent in 2023. The Republicans, by contrast, would slash it to less than 55 percent of GDP - much closer to the historical norm.

Democrats say their approach is more than adequate because there's nothing magic about having a balanced budget. They think the important thing is merely to "stabilize" the debt - that is, to keep it from ballooning any more as a share of the economy.

But after the recent explosion of the national debt - now approaching a staggering $17 trillion - that's not good enough, as nonpartisan research groups such as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget keep warning:

In the first place, the Democrats' plan stabilizes the debt only if things go well. If another recession hits, it will produce another huge increase in deficits, this one even more damaging that the last. In the second place, it adds way too much to the load that will burden future generations. That's a problem with deficits and debt. Sooner or later, somebody has to divert spending on tomorrow's priorities to pay for yesterday's.

What's more, reports The Christian Science Monitor, "stabilizing the debt through 2023 doesn't mean it will remain stable thereafter. Rather, health care spending will likely push the debt persistently upward after that time, forecasters say."

What is needed is a lot more ambition than the Murray plan reflects. If Democrats don't like the Republican plan for balancing the budget, they should produce their own. And when it comes to deficit reduction, they need to go big or go home.

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