About those CBO numbers…

ABOUT THOSE CBO NUMBERS…. The conventional wisdom about the discouraging new deficit projections from the CBO is that President Obama’s ambitious agenda is necessarily in jeopardy. If budget deficits are poised to spiral out of control, the argument goes, then lawmakers will have to start making significant cuts.

Indeed, the NYT‘s Jackie Calmes noted today that the CBO deficit numbers “complicate” Congress’ efforts of “achieving the president’s priorities on health care, energy policy and much more.”

But Ezra Klein raised a very good point about the “costs” associated with the administration’s agenda.

[T]he $634 billion set aside for health reform doesn’t contribute to the deficit at all. It’s entirely offset by capping itemized deductions for the rich and squeezing private insurers in Medicare and a couple other policies. The cap and trade proposal is actually revenue-positive.

The stimulus package, by contrast, sharply increased the deficit, because there were no immediate offsets to pay for it. So too with Bush’s tax cuts.

But the big new initiatives in Obama’s budget don’t necessarily affect the deficit at all. They’re entirely paid for. There may be a political impact in which the size of the deficit saps political will for new initiatives and gives Ben Nelson a preening opportunity he can’t pass on, but there’s no debt-related reason that these numbers should affect those priorities. Indeed, quite the opposite: Cap and trade would raise revenue and health reform will cut the long-term deficit by about $3 trillion. It’s only in the weird world that is Washington that budget projections showing the current fiscal path is unsustainable would be used to argue against policy changes that better the long-term outlook.

Exactly. The principal argument from the White House about health care and energy has been that these initiatives are necessary for long-term economic growth. That’s certainly true. But critics reflexively respond that these reform efforts will have to wait until the budget deficits Obama inherited are significantly smaller. This is not only wrong, it misses the point — the administration’s health care and energy proposals save money over the long run.

It’s why OMB Director Peter Orszag felt comfortable with sounding a relatively optimistic note yesterday. In a blog post, Orszag argued that the CBO report “only underscores the severity of the economic and fiscal crisis the Administration has inherited. There is need for urgent action to get our economy moving again, invest for the future, and put the nation on a sustainable fiscal path.”

He presented four key challenges (invest in health care, invest in education, and invest in energy, while cutting the deficit in half by 2013), adding, “The new CBO numbers do not change our commitment to these goals or our ability to achieve them.”

Lawmakers start debating the budget in earnest next week. It’s bound to be interesting.