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Opinion

Opinion

Sleight of hand won’t erase federal deficit

October 25, 2009

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— When I wrote a few days ago about the growing nervousness of moderate Senate Democrats over the approaching vote to raise the federal debt limit, I had no idea how quickly evidence of that shift in the political winds would appear.

I quoted Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who earlier this month initiated a letter to Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid saying that he and nine co-signers would have a hard time voting to boost the debt limit, as the White House needs them to do to protect the nation’s fiscal credibility, unless a tangible step were taken at the same time to pledge serious action to reduce future deficits.

Specifically, the 10 asked Reid to support a long-bottled-up proposal for a bipartisan commission whose report would trigger an up-or-down vote in both the House and Senate on a set of specific ways to cut those deficits. Both Reid and President Barack Obama told Bayh, in separate meetings, to cool his jets and wait until next year.

But on Wednesday of last week, a floor vote made it clear this issue may not wait. Reid tried to get the Senate to ratify a scheme for dodging a $247 billion hole in financing the health care bill, and was thwarted when Bayh and his allies, plus three more Democrats, and all 40 Republicans, voted it down, 53-47.

The “doc fix” rejected last week is something that Congress has been willing to do each year in order to avoid scheduled reductions in payments to doctors for treating their Medicare patients. But if that $247 billion were added to the estimated 10-year cost of the pending health care legislation, it would bust the $900 billion ceiling Obama has set.

Reid’s solution: Pass the “doc fix” as separate legislation and get it out of the way before the health bills hit the floor.

This is exactly the kind of sleight-of-hand which Congress routinely performs to conceal the spending that has produced the record $1.4 trillion deficit for this past year.

It’s not limited to Democrats, by any means. When Republicans were in control for eight years, they refused to raise taxes to pay for either the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or the costs of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. And they did not have the excuse of facing the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.

But this year, the public has finally grown alarmed about the debt being passed on to our children and grandchildren. What Bayh and the others who balked at Reid’s effort to finesse the spending issue understand is that time has run out on schemes that perpetuate the dangerous fiscal policies of the past.

Economic recovery is job one. But budgetary responsibility is job two, and we can’t afford to delay further starting on it.

Jack Nelson, the great reporter at the Los Angeles Times who died last week at 80, made signal contributions to American life in multiple phases of his career. As a young man, he was part of a generation of brave, mostly Southern-born journalists who exposed the crimes and evils of segregation to the scrutiny of the nation, and thereby prodded Congress to pass the civil rights legislation that has transformed the country. Nelson was among the last of that generation of reporters who had to conceal their notebooks in their pockets to avoid angry mobs when they visited the scenes of anti-civil rights demonstrations.

Then, for two decades starting in the 1970s, backed by publisher Otis Chandler, Nelson built the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau into the rival of any in the city — an achievement that was part of what looks increasingly to have been the golden age of Washington journalism.

Now, as financial resources and professional commitment ebb in news organizations across the country, it is the example of the fierce competitiveness that Nelson and his contemporaries displayed in such abundance that sustains those who are still trying to live up to his standards against all the forces weakening journalism today.

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