The numbers in President Obama's proposed budget for fiscal 2011 boggle -- not just the $3.8 trillion total, but the projected deficit of $1.3 trillion -- and demonstrate the difficult task of getting the government's finances into a semblance of order.
In the short run Obama seeks a 3 percent increase in spending, primarily to stimulate the economy and soften the effects of the most severe recession in 80 years, but he proposes a start at reining in the ballooning deficits that threaten the nation's long-term fiscal health. The White House projects the deficit will fall to $828 billion in 2012 and hover in the $700 billion range the next few years.
His initial stab at fiscal discipline is a three-year freeze on discretionary spending, coupled with additional revenue, mainly from letting expire Bush-era tax cuts that primarily benefited the richest.
The spending freeze has been derided by Republicans, who were willing partners in the deficit binge that turned the budget surplus President George W. Bush inherited into a sea of red ink.
The Great Recession has exacerbated the problem. Total government receipts have plummeted and spending on safety net programs -- unemployment compensation, food stamps, Medicaid -- have automatically mushroomed.
In fact, only $1.4 billion of the budget is susceptible to changes or cuts -- the rest is entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, interest on the debt and other payments mandated by law. Every program has its defenders, especially congressmen keen on looking after the interests of their constituents. Even though Democrats control Congress, they will not meekly accede to Obama's plans.
Deficits are defensible in an ailing economy, but they cannot be tolerated indefinitely and at their current levels are unsustainable. Cutting them to manageable size, though, requires a suspension of congressional parochialism and the will to make tough choices, both by politicians and the public.