Obama gives lawmakers a budget plateful

GOP says the White House plan means more taxes on all Americans

Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/NEWSCOM
White House budget director Peter Orszag, shown here talking about the federal budget for 2010 on Feb. 26, told reporters on Friday, 'We face very large problems that need to be addressed, and we can’t wait to address them.'

If there’s one place President Obama’s new budget is sure to put people to work, it’s Capitol Hill.

That’s because Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget outline, sent to Congress on February 26, calls for legislative changes in US domestic policy as far-reaching as any made since the Great Society years of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The budget sets aside cash for a down payment on universal health care, for instance. But health spending accounts for 18 percent of US GDP. The issue involves so many people’s livelihoods, and is so complex, that this alone could take up huge amounts of congressional time and energy.

But wait -- there’s more!

Obama’s budget also assumes that Congress will pass a “cap-and-trade” system of pollution permits in the name of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That would be one of the biggest changes in US environmental policy, ever.

And still more! The budget calls for deep reductions in subsides for farmers, as well as higher taxes on the wealthy, and other potentially controversial fiscal changes.

To weigh all these big issues in a timely manner will require that Congress do more than walk and chew gum at the same time. In legislative terms, this means Congress will have to walk and chew gum while translating Charles Dickens into Hebrew and calculating Earth’s gravitational interaction with Mars.

Is that too much for lawmakers to handle?

“I sure hope not,” said White House budget director Peter Orszag at a briefing for reporters. “We face very large problems that need to be addressed, and we can’t wait to address them.”

Democrats control Congress, of course, and House and Senate leaders pledge that they will work as fast as possible to translate Obama’s budget numbers into legislative action.

Early action on energy

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada has said his chamber will move an energy bill this spring, for instance. It will include measures meant to increase US production of renewables.

House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California has pledged that his panel this spring will produce a bill combining energy issues and climate change provisions -- including a proposed cap-and-trade system.

“Global warming is one of my key priorities,” Waxman said February 26.

Health care legislation would likely follow the energy bill. The White House as yet has no health reform point person, following former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s withdrawal of his nomination to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. In addition, one of the Democratic Party’s leading voices on health care, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, has dealt with his own serious health challenges this spring.

On the budget itself, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California has said her chamber will vote on a non-binding budget resolution next month -- the first step in the arduous traditional appropriations process.

“Our work is well cut out for us,” said Speaker Pelosi.

Republicans on the attack

Meanwhile, Republicans have begun developing lines of attack on Obama’s budget and the issues it raises.

Among these will be an attempt to frame the proposed climate change provisions as a tax -- a levy that will touch almost everything Americans do.

House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio, speaking at a Conservative Political Action Committee conference on February 27, called cap-and-trade “a French term for ‘pink slip’.”

Obama’s budget “relies on tax increases on small businesses, family farms, middle-class families, retirees, charities, every American with a 401(k), and yes, any American who dares flip on a light switch at home,” said Rep. Boehner.

A cap-and-trade system would require industries in some manner to purchase permits allowing them to emit greenhouse gases.

Presumably, these costs would be passed along to customers in the form of higher prices.
These higher prices are what opponents of the system describe as a tax.

“The cap-and-trade system will have some effects on households,,” said OMB director Peter Orszag at his press briefing. “That’s one reason why we are linking the cap-and-trade program ... to a tax credit for working families that would provide relief in their budgets over time.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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