Happy Budget Day

Today much of Washington stood still as many plodded through the hundreds of pages and myriad graphs, charts and tables in the White House Budget request for fiscal year 2011. It is an annual rite in Washington that the first Monday in February be spent this way. Though thanks to modern technology the materials are available on the web nowadays, as opposed to a hapless intern or low-level staffer having to trudge to the Government Printing Office bookstore and haul a good 15+ (depending on the number of copies) pounds of dead tree back to the office. Been there, not cool.

Now that “Jersey Shore” is done for the season, this is a good way for those outside the beltway to kill some time before the season premiere of “Lost” tomorrow night.

The budget is where Washington puts the (taxpayers’) money where their mouths are. The politicians can talk about what they want to do, but the budget process is where they have to at least have some semblance of prioritizing; though the process currently is so dysfunctional and marred by gimmicks and budgetary slight of hand that such accountability is diminished. Today we got an idea of President Obama’s priorities. As Congress rips through the request we will get some idea of theirs.

Much has already been and will be written about what exactly is in the budget. Policy Daddy will surely have some things to say in the coming days. But among all the minutiae of the budget and the big numbers — $3.8 trillion in spending and $1.6 trillion deficit for this year — we cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that we are facing a long-term debt crisis. The director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office expressed the fundamental issue last week in his blog:

A large and persistent imbalance between federal spending and revenues is apparent in CBO’s projections for the next 10 years and will be exacerbated in coming decades by the aging of the population and the rising costs of health care. That imbalance stems from policy choices made over many years. As a result of those choices, U.S. fiscal policy is on an unsustainable path to an extent that cannot be solved by minor tinkering. The country faces a fundamental disconnect between the services that people expect the government to provide, particularly in the form of benefits for older Americans, and the tax revenues that people are willing to send to the government to finance those services. That fundamental disconnect will have to be addressed in some way if the nation is to avoid serious long-term damage to the economy and to the well-being of the population.

That’s the problem in a nutshell. And it will be a tough nut to crack. Although voters are growing increasingly concerned about rising federal deficits and debt, we need to recognize that addressing the issue will require all of us to prioritize how we want our tax dollars collected and spent. We are finally doing it at home and we must now also bring that same new-found sensibility to what we expect of our government and what we expect to pay for. Our leaders will have to make some tough decisions and we cannot let demagogues cloud the debate.

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