Has Bill O'Reilly solved the federal deficit problem?

Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News host, outlined what he called a 'very simple strategy' for the federal deficit: turning the clock back to 2008.

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Bill O'Reilly.

Has Bill O’Reilly solved America's deficit crisis? That’s what he claimed on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Tuesday night. The host of the Fox News show outlined what he called a “very simple strategy” for ending the flood of red ink that’s threatening the nation’s economic future. What is this strategy? Turn the clock back to 2008.

That’s right: Replace the fiscal 2012 budget proposal that President Obama just sent to Congress with the budget from three years ago. “The US government must go back to 2008. It must spend the same amount of money that it did before the recession hit,” Mr. O’Reilly said.

First off, we have to say that this is a substantive proposal that would work if Congress voted to carry it out. (More on the “if” part later.) Mr. Obama’s 2012 budget plan would spend $3.7 trillion and produce a federal deficit of $1.1 trillion. In 2008, the US government spent $2.9 trillion. If Uncle Sam limited himself to that total next year, the projected budget deficit would be about $300 billion. That still sounds like a lot, but given the $1.1 trillion alternative, $300 billion sounds like chump change.

“Simple formula, doable, and it must be done,” said O’Reilly.

The catch is that this would be an across-the-board reduction. That’s what makes it simple. O’Reilly noted that under his plan, the Defense Department would get $612 billion instead of a proposed $884 billion. The Education Department would get $66 billion instead of $77 billion. And so on, down through the list of everything the federal government does.

Hmm. That’s, what, a 30 percent cut for the Pentagon? That seems like a lot, given with what’s going on in Afghanistan and all – and the fact that the House on Tuesday defeated an attempt to cut a mere $18 million from Department of Defense 2011 spending.

Nor would O’Reilly spare the giant entitlement programs that are the real drivers of future US budget shortfalls. Rolling the budget back to 2008 would reduce Medicare spending by $100 billion – from a proposed $485 billion to $386 billion, the Fox News star noted.

That sounds appealing, but wouldn’t Medicare recipients, you know, freak out if the US suddenly says it’s going to be devoting that much less money to their health care?

And what about Social Security? The United States spent $612 billion in 2008 on the big retirement plan. Obama is asking for $761 billion in 2012.

“This can’t go on. The age requirement has to be raised,” O’Reilly said on his show.

OK, let’s stop right there. Raising the retirement age would indeed help put Social Security on sound financial footing. But it is a highly controversial proposal that (a) has to be done via separate legislation, as opposed to the budget process, and (b) might cause seniors and near seniors to storm lawmaker offices in a political frenzy.

Those are among the reasons that Obama did not include entitlement changes in his budget proposals. He’s talking about sitting down with Republicans and working out a road map so that both parties can hold hands and jump off the high dive, taking a political risk together, to mix a few metaphors.

So what’s our bottom line? O’Reilly’s plan isn’t magic. Figuring out how to make the numbers add up (or add up to less) isn’t the problem.

The problem is political will in the face of public opposition to specific cuts. Look at the results of a Harris Interactive poll released Wednesday: Respondents opposed cutting federal spending on health care by 67 percent to 24 percent. They opposed cutting federal aid to education by 71 percent to 21 percent. And so on.

That said, wouldn’t you like to see Obama think outside the bun and name O’Reilly as the new director of the Office of Management and Budget? The heretofore dry art of budget briefing would never be the same again.

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