WASHINGTON — Seeking an elusive middle ground, President Barack Obama is proposing a 2014 budget that embraces tax increases abhorred by Republicans as well as reductions, loathed by liberals, in the growth of Social Security and other benefit programs.
The plan, if ever enacted, could touch almost all Americans. The rich would see tax increases, the poor and the elderly would get smaller annual increases in their benefits, and middle income taxpayers would slip into higher tax brackets despite Obama's repeated vows not to add to the tax burden of the middle class. His proposed changes, once phased in, would mean a cut in Social Security benefits of nearly $1,000 a year for an average 85-year-old, smaller cuts for younger retirees.
Obama proposed much the same without success to House Speaker John Boehner in December. The response Friday was dismissive from Republicans and hostile from liberals, labor and advocates for the elderly.
But the proposal aims to tackle worrisome deficits that are adding to the national debt and placing a long-term burden on the nation, prompting praise from independent deficit hawks. Obama's budget also proposes new spending for public works projects, pre-school education and for job and benefit assistance for veterans.
"It's not the president's ideal approach to our budget challenges, but it is a serious compromise proposition that demonstrates that he wants to get things done," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
The budget, which Obama will release Wednesday to cover the budget year beginning Oct. 1, proposes spending cuts and revenue increases that would result in $1.8 trillion in deficit reductions over 10 years. That figure would replace $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that are poised to take effect over the next 10 years if Congress and the president don't come up with an alternative, thus delivering a net increase in deficit reduction of $600 billion.
Counting reductions and higher taxes that Congress and Obama have approved since 2011, the 2014 budget would contribute to $4.3 trillion in total deficit reduction by 2023.
The budget wouldn't affect the $85 billion in cuts that kicked in last month for this budget year.
A key feature of Obama's plan is a revised inflation adjustment called "chained CPI." This new formula would effectively curb annual increases in a broad swath of government programs but would have its biggest impact on Social Security. By encompassing Obama's offer to Boehner, R-Ohio, the plan would also include reductions in Medicare spending, much of it by targeting payments to health care providers and drug companies. The Medicare proposal also would require wealthier recipients to pay higher premiums or co-pays.
Obama's budget proposal also calls for additional tax revenue, primarily by placing a 28 percent cap on deductions and other tax exclusions. That plan would affect wealthy taxpayers as would a new administration proposal to place limits on tax-preferred retirement accounts for millionaires and billionaires.
Obama made the same offer to Boehner in December when he and the speaker were negotiating ways of avoiding a steep, so-called fiscal cliff of combined across-the-board spending cuts and sweeping tax increases caused by the expiration of Bush-era tax rates. Boehner rejected that plan and ultimately Congress approved tax increases that were half of what Obama had sought.
"If you look at where the president's final offer and Boehner were ... they were extremely close to each other," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "We do think that it's a very good sign that the president has included real entitlement reforms in the budget."
Boehner, in a statement Friday, said House Republicans made clear to Obama last month that he should not make savings in entitlement programs that both sides agree on, contingent on more tax increases.
"If the president believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there's no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes," Boehner said. "That's no way to lead and move the country forward."
The inflation adjustment would reduce federal spending on government programs over 10 years by about $130 billion, according to White House estimates. Because it also affects how tax brackets are adjusted, it would also generate about $100 billion in higher taxes and hit even middle income taxpayers.
Once the change is fully phased in, Social Security benefits for a typical middle-income 65-year-old would be about $136 less a year, according to an analysis of Social Security data. At age 75, annual benefits under the new index would be $560 less. At 85, the cut would be $984 a year.
The concept behind the chained CPI is that consumers substitute lower-priced alternatives for goods whose costs spike. So, for example, if the price of oranges goes too high for some consumers, they could buy alternatives like apples or strawberries if their prices were more affordable. This flexibility isn't considered in the current system of gauging inflation, a calculation that determines how much benefits grow each year. Taking it into account means such benefits won't grow by as much.
Advocates for the elderly say seniors pay a higher portion of their income for health care, where costs rise more quickly than inflation.
The White House has said the cost-of-living adjustments would include protections for "vulnerable" recipients.
"The president should drop these misguided cuts in benefits and focus instead on building support in Congress for investing in jobs," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement.
AARP's legislative policy director said Obama's budget proposal, while not a surprise, was a disappointment.
"The message seems to be that the president wants a deal and is willing to even sacrifice such important benefits as Social Security as part of that deal," said David Certner. The seniors lobby argues that Social Security doesn't belong in the budget talks because it isn't contributing to the deficit and is separately financed with its own dedicated taxes.
Citing the effect on veterans, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said he was "terribly disappointed" in the Obama plan and would "do everything in my power to block" it.
While Obama has proposed the slower cost of living adjustment plan during fiscal negotiations with Republican leaders, placing it in the budget would put the administration's official imprint on the plan and mark a full shift from Obama's stand in 2008, when he campaigned against Republican Party nominee John McCain.
In a Sept. 6, 2008, speech to AARP, Obama said: "John McCain's campaign has suggested that the best answer for the growing pressures on Social Security might be to cut cost-of-living adjustments or raise the retirement age. Let me be clear: I will not do either."
Obama also proposes $305 billion in cuts to Medicare over a decade, including $156 billion through lower Medicare payments to drug companies and higher premiums or co-pays from wealthy recipients. That's to the right of the conservative budget of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which barely touches Medicare in the coming 10 years, cutting just $129 billion from the program. The huge Medicare savings from Ryan's proposal, which transforms the system into a program in which the government subsidizes health insurance purchases on the private market, wouldn't accrue until the following decade.
Obama's budget comes after the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-run Senate passed separate and markedly different budget proposals. House Republicans achieved long-term deficit reductions by targeting safety net programs; Democrats instead protected those programs and called for $1 trillion in tax increases.
But Obama has been making a concerted effort to win Republican support, especially in the Senate. He has even scheduled a dinner with Republican lawmakers on the evening that his budget is released next week.
As described by the administration officials, the budget proposal would also end a loophole that permits people to obtain unemployment insurance and disability benefits at the same time.
Obama's proposal, however, includes calls for increased spending. It proposes $50 billion for public works projects. It also would make preschool available to more children by increasing the tax on tobacco.
Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.
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The U.S. incarcerates its citizens at a rate roughly <a href="http://www.parade.com/news/2009/03/why-we-must-fix-our-prisons.html" target="_hplink">five times higher than the global average</a>. We have about 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of its prisoners, according to The Economist,. This status quo costs our local, state and federal governments a combined $68 billion a year -- all of which becomes a federal problem during recessions, when states look to Washington for fiscal relief. Over the standard 10-year budget window used in Congress, that's a $680 billion hit to the deficit. Solving longstanding prison problems -- releasing elderly convicts unlikely to commit crimes, offering treatment or counseling as an alternative to prison for non-violent offenders, slightly shortening the sentences of well-behaved inmates, and substituting probation for more jail-time -- would do wonders for government spending.
End Of The Drug War
The federal government spends more than <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-20072096.html" target="_hplink">$15 billion a year</a> investigating and prosecuting the War on Drugs. That's $150 billion in Washington budget-speak, and it doesn't include the far higher costs of incarcerating millions of people for doing drugs. This money isn't getting the government the results it wants. As drug war budgets balloon, drug use escalates. Ending the Drug War offers the government two separate budget boons. In addition to saving all the money spending investigating, prosecuting and incarcerating drug offenders, Uncle Sam could actually regulate and tax drugs like marijuana, generating new revenue. Studies by pot legalization advocates indicate that fully legalizing weed in California would yield <a href="http://canorml.org/background/CA_legalization2.html" target="_hplink">up to $18 billion annually</a> for that state's government alone. For the feds, the benefits are even sweeter.
Let Medicare Negotiate With Big Pharma
The U.S. has <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/06/01/us-healthcare-costs-sb-idUSTRE5504Z320090601" target="_hplink">higher health care costs than any other country</a>. We spend over 15 percent of our total economic output each year on health care -- roughly 50 percent more than Canada, and double what the U.K. spends. Why? The American private health care system is inefficient, and the intellectual property rules involving medication in the U.S. can make prescription drugs much more expensive than in other countries. Medicare currently spends about $50 billion a year on prescription drugs. According to economist Dean Baker, <a href="http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/intellectual_property_2004_09.pdf" target="_hplink">Americans spend roughly 10 times more than they need to</a> on prescription drugs as a result of our unique intellectual property standards. These savings for the government, of course, would come from the pockets of major pharmaceutical companies, currently among the most profitable corporations the world has ever known. They also exercise tremendous clout inside the Beltway. President Barack Obama even <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/02/barack-obama-politics_n_1847947.html" target="_hplink">guaranteed drug companies more restrictive -- and lucrative -- intellectual property standards</a> in order to garner their support for the Affordable Care Act.
Offshore Tax Havens
The U.S. Treasury Department estimates that it loses about <a href="http://www.ctj.org/pdf/stopact.pdf" target="_hplink">$100 billion a year</a> in revenue due to offshore tax haven abuses. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has been pushing legislation for years to rein in this absurd tax maneuvering, but corporate lobbying on Capitol Hill has prevented the bill from becoming law.
Deprivatize Government Contract Work
In recent years, the federal government has privatized an enormous portion of public projects to government contractors. Over the past decade, the federal government's staffing has held steady, while the number of federal contractors has <a href="http://pogoarchives.org/m/co/igf/bad-business-report-only-2011.pdf" target="_hplink">increased by millions</a>. This outsourcing has resulted in much higher costs for the government than would be incurred by simply doing the work in-house. On average, contractors are paid <a href="http://pogoarchives.org/m/co/igf/bad-business-report-only-2011.pdf" target="_hplink">nearly double</a> what a comparable federal employee would receive for the same job, according to the Project On Government Oversight.
Print More Money
There's an old saying in economics: You have to print money to make money. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/09/underwear-sales-growth-economy_n_1952214.html" target="_hplink">Okay, there's no such saying</a>. Nevertheless, the great boogeyman of many conservative economic doctrines -- inflation -- isn't such a bad idea during periods where much of the citizenry is drowning in debt. Inflation is by no means a perfect remedy: it's a stealth cut to workers' wages. But it also has many benefits that are often unacknowledged by the Washington intelligentsia. Inflation makes housing debt, student loan debt and any other private-sector debt more manageable. Today, when <a href="http://www.corelogic.com/about-us/researchtrends/asset_upload_file448_16434.pdf" target="_hplink">10.8 million</a> homes are underwater -- meaning borrowers owe banks than their houses are worth, moderate inflation could ease that debt burden. By effectively reducing monthly bills, moderate inflation could actually put more money in the pockets of these homeowners to spend elsewhere, thus stimulating the economy. Moderate inflation -- 5 percent or so -- could also help alleviate the <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505145_162-57555780/student-loan-debt-nears-$1-trillion-is-it-the-new-subprime/" target="_hplink">$1 trillion</a> in student debt currently plaguing America's graduates. Make no mistake -- hyperinflation of 20 percent, 30 percent or more -- is bad. But the U.S. has ways to crush inflation when it gets out of hand, as proven by the Federal Reserve under then-Chairman Paul Volcker in the early-1980s.
Print Less Money
The government prints a <em>lot</em> of $1 bills. But it turns out that minting $1 coins is much, much cheaper. Over the course of 30 years, the government could save $4.4 billion by switching from dollar bills to dollar coins. Here's looking at you, <a href="http://www.usmint.gov/mint_programs/nativeamerican/" target="_hplink">Sacagawea</a>.
Immigration: Less Detention, More Ankle Bracelets
The government spends <a href="http://newamericamedia.org/2012/04/ice-slow-to-embrace-alternatives-to-immigrant-detention.php" target="_hplink"> $122 per person, per day</a> detaining immigrants who are considered safe and unlikely to commit crimes. The government has plenty of other options available to monitor such people, at a cost of as little as $15 per person. For the first 205 years of America's existence, there was no federal system for detaining immigrants. The process began in 1981.
Financial Speculation Tax
Wall Street loves to gamble. In good times, financial speculation is the source of tremendous profits in America's banking system, but when the bets go bad, the government picks up the tab, as evidenced by the epic bank bailouts of 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately, this speculation is difficult to define in legalistic terminology and even more difficult to police. One solution? By taxing every financial trade at the ultra-low rate of 0.25 percent, the U.S. government can impose a modest incentive against gambling for the sheer sake of gambling. If there's an immediate cost to placing a bet, a lot of traders will choose not to bet. What's more, this tax could raise about <a href="http://www.ips-dc.org/media/why_a_financial_transaction_tax" target="_hplink">$150 billion a year</a> for the federal government.
Taxing greenhouse gases would generate $80 billion a year right now, and up to $310 billion a year by 2050, <a href="http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/07/carbon-tax-mckibbin-morris-wilcoxen" target="_hplink">according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution</a>. It would also help avert catastrophic ecological and economic damage from climate change.