MUCH OF WHAT President Obama hopes to accomplish in his second term would tap into what’s known as the “discretionary budget” — money not already claimed by entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. But the discretionary budget itself is about tapped out, squeezed by the growth of entitlement spending. That’s what makes the minimal presidential leadership on entitlement reform so baffling.
This week Washington is having a stupid fight over a stupid budget issue. The so-called sequestration of $85 billion in federal spending would weaken the economy just as an increase in the payroll tax appears to be giving consumers pause. It would force the government to make mindless cuts across the board, instead of allowing reasoned choices. According to Mr. Obama’s senior military advisers, it would endanger national security. Yet nobody seems inclined to prevent it.
In the petty arguments over this self-inflicted wound, there are merits, or demerits, on both sides. The Republicans are right when they say that the sequester was Mr. Obama’s idea, in the summer of 2011, and that he agreed to a deal that was all spending cuts, no tax hikes. He is correct that he hoped the sequester would never go into effect but would be replaced by a 10-year bargain that would raise revenue and slow the growth of entitlement costs. He is correct, too, on the larger point: Such a deal is what’s needed, and the Republicans are wrong to resist further revenue hikes.