WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday challenged Congress to pay for new increases in federal benefit programs as it goes rather than sink the nation deeper into a debt, calling it a matter of public responsibility.
Republicans lashed back that Obama is no voice of fiscal restraint as the deficit soars.
The president's plan would require Congress to pay for new entitlement spending, such as health care, by raising taxes or coming up with budget cuts — a "pay-as-you-go" system that would have the force of law. Under the proposal, if new spending or tax reductions are not offset, there would be automatic cuts in so-called mandatory programs — although Social Security payments and some other programs would be exempt.
Not noted by the president: Tuesday's plan is a watered-down version of the so-called "PAYGO" rules proposed just last month in his own budget plan.
That version would have required, on average, all affected legislation to be paid for in the very first year. The new plan only requires such legislation to be financed over the coming decade. That mirrors congressional rules and reflects the likelihood that health care reform will add to the deficit in the early years.
Spend a dollar, save a dollar
Obama said the principle is simple: Congress can only spend a dollar if it saves a dollar somewhere else.
"It is no coincidence that this rule was in place when we moved from record deficits to record surpluses in the 1990s — and that when this rule was abandoned, we returned to record deficits that doubled the national debt," Obama said, flanked at the White House by supportive Democratic lawmakers.
"Entitlement increases and tax cuts need to be paid for," he said. "They're not free, and borrowing to finance them is not a sustainable long-term policy."
Republican leaders, critical of the Obama-championed $787 billion stimulus package and other deficit spending, called the president disingenuous.
"It's as if the administration and these Democrat leaders are living in an alternate universe," said House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia. "The quickest way to save money is to stop recklessly spending it."
The pay-as-you-go rules would not apply to discretionary spending — the portion that Congress decides how to spend each year — which accounts for almost 40 percent of the budget, said Peter Orszag, the administration's budget director.
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Obama's call for binding legislation comes as a reward to moderate-to-conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats who are big believers in pay-as-you go. Their votes were crucial to passing a congressional budget blueprint that generally follows Obama's budget.
Existing PAYGO rules
The House and Senate already have their own PAYGO rules, but have routinely found ways around them. For example, a bill to effectively double GI Bill education benefits was enacted last year because of a loophole in congressional rules.
Obama's "PAYGO" plan would also require future tax cuts to be financed by tax increases elsewhere in the code, though exceptions are made for extending President George W. Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, as well as other tax cuts that are scheduled to expire.
The federal deficit is on pace to explode past $1.8 trillion this year, more than four times last year's all-time high.
The deficit figures flow from the deep recession, the Wall Street bailout and the cost of the economic stimulus bill. Obama has defended the massive stimulus plan as essential to helping pump some life back in the economy, one that is still shedding jobs but showing more signs of life in recent weeks.
"The fact is, there are few who aren't distressed by deficits," Obama said. He said restoring a pay-as-you-go method under law would force lawmakers to deal not just with the politics and crises of the day, but also remain fixed on the nation's long-term financial health.
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