We Don’t Have a Government Spending Problem. We Have a Health Care Problem.

Nobody’s happy about the sequester, the government spending cuts that took effect a few days ago, but most people think it was a necessary evil.

Evil? Maybe. Necessary? Absolutely not.

In June 2011, before Congress passed the Budget Control Act, the Congressional Budget Office released its annual “Long-Term Budget Outlook.” This is the best nonpartisan projection we have of what the federal budget would look like without the sequester.

The CBO considered two possibilities.

First, what would the budget look like if Congress did absolutely nothing? The Bush tax cuts would expire as scheduled, Obamacare would take effect, and Medicare payments to doctors would remain at current rates. They called this the “Extended-Baseline Scenario.”

Second, what if Congress stopped all those things from happening? They extended the Bush tax cuts permanently, repealed Obamacare, and raised Medicare’s payment rates for doctors every year. They called this the “Alternative Fiscal Scenario.”

The difference is stunning. In the Extended-Baseline Scenario, the government’s debt never increases. Relative to the size of the economy, it’s the same in 2033 as it was in 2013. Meanwhile, in the Alternative Fiscal Scenario, it skyrockets. By 2033, it’s double what it was in 2013.

The Alternative Fiscal Scenario is what scared legislators into passing the Budget Control Act. They decided to slash government spending across-the-board by over $2 trillion over the next decade in order to avoid a massive increase in debt.

But why were they looking at the Alternative Fiscal Scenario? After all, the Extended-Baseline Scenario showed that the debt problem disappeared if Congress simply did nothing. Why didn’t they just…do nothing?

Well, if they did nothing, taxes would go up, and doctors’ payments wouldn’t. The politics speaks for itself.

Instead of doing nothing, Congress made 84 percent of the Bush tax cuts permanent at the beginning of this year, and of course, doctors’ payments continue to rise.

And that’s why they needed the sequester to rein in rising debt.

But that doesn’t explain why the sequester was an across-the-board cut in government spending when, according to the CBO, we don’t have an across-the-board spending problem.

Let’s look at the 2011 Budget Outlook one more time.

In the Alternative Fiscal Scenario, it’s true that spending increases dramatically — from 24.1 percent of our nation’s income in 2011 to 33.9 percent in 2035. But it’s not across-the-board. In fact, if you exclude health care programs and interest payments, federal spending actually decreases from 17.1 percent in 2011 to 14.6 percent in 2035!

In other words, we don’t have a spending problem. We have a health care problem!

If we had the health care costs of the average industrialized country – which has a higher life expectancy than us, by the way – we’d save over $2.5 trillion over the next decade, far more than the sequester.

And yet, looking at these numbers, our legislators decided to slash government programs across-the-board, the vast majority of which nothing to do with the problem. They chose to kick 70,000 kids out of Head Start; eliminate funding for 1.2 million disadvantaged students; serve 4 million fewer Meals on Wheels; eliminate nutrition assistance for 600,000 women and children; kick 120,000 families out of low-income housing; kick 100,000 homeless people out of shelters; conduct 2,100 fewer food inspections; conduct 1,200 fewer workplace safety inspections; treat 373,000 fewer mentally ill Americans; employ 1,000 fewer federal law enforcement agents; prosecute 1,000 fewer criminal cases; issue 1,000 fewer science research grants; guarantee $540 million less in loans to small businesses; conduct 424,000 fewer HIV tests; and treat 7,400 fewer AIDS patients. And that’s only this year, when less than 10 percent of the sequester will kick in.

All because they didn’t want to deal with the real problem.

Last month, the CBO published a new Budget Outlook. Including the effects of the sequester, it shows debt declining for the next few years, and then in 2019 it starts to rise again. That’s the dirty little secret that Congress won’t tell you: Even $2 trillion in spending cuts can’t stop the rise in debt…because spending simply isn’t the problem.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Barack Obama Is Not the “Ice Cream President”

There’s an email making the rounds that tells a story about two little girls who run for class president in grade school. One girl works hard, runs a good campaign, and promises to do her best if elected. The other girl promises to give everyone ice cream. The teacher asks the children how they’ll pay for the ice cream. They have no idea, but they vote for the ice cream girl anyway.

That, says the email, is how Barack Obama won the election. He promised to give away free stuff that we can’t afford.

Bill O’Reilly got the ball rolling on this theory when he said, “It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”

Earlier that day, a Romney supporter told me that he expected his candidate to lose because Obama “bought” votes by “giving away” food stamps and welfare.

We have such short memories.

It was the Republican president George W. Bush who expanded eligibility for food stamps in the 2002 farm bill. It was 99 Republican representatives who voted to expand the program further in the 2008 farm bill. And it was that same Republican president who waived one of the work requirements for 32 states in November 2008.

That’s why the food stamp program added more recipients under Bush than it did under Obama.

The welfare claim is even more ridiculous. We may not remember the food stamp expansion under Bush, but surely we remember welfare reform under Bill Clinton. In 1996, Congress ended “welfare as we know it” and replaced it with “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” (TANF), a program whose budget hasn’t changed in 16 years. It was $16.6 billion in 1996, and it’s $16.6 billion today.

In the year before welfare reform, 4.7 million Americans received assistance from the program. Today, only 2 million receive assistance from TANF.

When TANF was created, 68 percent of families with children in poverty received welfare. Today, only 27 percent get it.

Low-income entitlement spending has increased, but it would’ve increased under any president. Most of it is what economists call “automatic stabilizers” because they automatically increase during recessions. More people become unemployed. More people fall into poverty. More people lose their health insurance. So more people qualify for unemployment insurance and food stamps and Medicaid.

Since the end of the recession, low-income entitlement spending has been falling. In the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office says that it will return to the same level it’s been for the last forty years: a little more than 1 percent of our nation’s income. If you exclude health care, where costs are rising for completely separate reasons, the CBO expects low-income entitlement spending to fall below its forty-year average in coming years.

The CBO is making these projections, of course, based on the Obama administration’s budget. The president who is supposedly giving away free stuff, it turns out, is actually planning to reduce low-income entitlements.

What’s particularly galling about the Republicans’ argument is that Romney was the candidate who couldn’t explain how he’d pay for everything he was promising. Romney was the candidate who wanted to add a $480 billion tax cut to a $1.3 trillion deficit. Romney was the candidate who wanted to add $200 billion in new Pentagon spending every year.

It was the Republican president George W. Bush who turned a surplus into a deficit. It was Bush who took the nation into two wars while passing two massive tax cuts. It was Bush who signed Medicare Part D without figuring out how to pay for it.

Are we all suffering from a collective bout of amnesia?

The Romney camp’s explanation for their electoral loss fits right in with the broader picture they tried to paint of the Obama presidency. In their world, Barack Obama “has fundamentally changed the relationship between government and the people of this country,” as Jon Stewart put it in his debate with O’Reilly.

But it’s simply not true.

And the truth matters. Obama didn’t win the election because he’s giving away free stuff, and perpetrating such a myth only serves to obscure what’s really going on and what really needs to be done in Washington.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.