Three worthwhile initiatives in the Obama budget

Reuters

Copies of President Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2015 Budget are delivered to The House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 4, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • I think it is incorrect to describe the entire Obama budget released on Tuesday as “dead on arrival.”

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  • The quality of spending matters, and on this the administration must show that it has learned a lesson and will improve.

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  • These worthwhile initiatives in Mr. Obama’s budget could have bipartisan appeal — if Mr. Obama will take the steps to look for it.

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I think it is incorrect to describe the entire Obama budget released on Tuesday as “dead on arrival.”  Yes, the document was full of retread proposals that did not find favor in previous years and are no more likely to be enacted in 2014. Yes, the budget was honed as a political tool for the fall elections — a “campaign brochure” in the words of Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin. And yes, President Obama’s failure to take on entitlement reforms means that he intends to leave his successor to face a horizon with a mounting burden of debt relative to gross domestic product — a reflection of a budget proposal that would stabilize the national debt for only about a decade, even with a panoply of new taxes.

Despite these inadequacies, within the budget are at least three ideas that deserve serious consideration: proposals related to spending on infrastructure like roads and bridges, to job training and to early childhood education. Each of these initiatives involves new spending, but more money would be merited if accompanied by improvements that make better use of existing funds. And new legislation in these three policy areas could address pressing economic challenges in the United States and result in substantial positive returns for both individual families and for the nation as a whole.

At the same time, the specific proposals in the budget are incomplete in a way that is symptomatic of the Obama administration’s maddening inability to shift from political campaign to governance, and that reflects the frustrating reluctance of the president to recognize possibilities for bipartisan compromise. For sure, the latter is no easy task, but there are more than enough Republicans in both houses of Congress — indeed, the vast majority of Republicans — who would much prefer to improve the education of a child than to score a political headline. There is a bipartisan caucus for progress.

As an example, look to the bargain reached in August regarding reforms to student loan funding. Mr. Obama came forward with a proposal similar to legislation that had passed the House, rebuffing efforts by a group of Democratic senators to continue picking a fight, and rapidly ended up with a bill on his desk. The same could be done in these three areas – perhaps not as easily or quickly as with student loans, for which the threat of rising interest rates represented a burning policy fuse. But the possibility is there for infrastructure, training and early childhood education but this opportunity is not taken up in the president’s budget.

On infrastructure spending, all of us can see possible high return projects — witness the state of too many American roads, airports and schools.  But there are also ample ways to waste money — a point the administration proved all too well by burning taxpayer funds on the likes of Solyndra and other fruitless ventures. The quality of spending matters, and on this the administration must show that it has learned a lesson and will improve.

A way to start would be to stop the federal money still slated to support the high-speed railroad to nowhere in California. This is widely seen as a waste even by the state’s lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom, and yet Mr. Obama is bending yet more rules to give Gov. Jerry Brown more time to figure out how to burn his state’s money. It is hard to contemplate new funds when the president steadfastly insists on such waste. More broadly, Mr. Obama must then come forward with a new mechanism by which to allocate infrastructure spending that would give confidence not just to Republicans but to all Americans that another round of funds would not be riddled yet again with crony capitalism, whether for the president’s green pet projects or any others. Yes, this would mean owning up to the problems of the president’s past efforts, but these are already well understood and the associated political price has long been paid.

A new approach to federal job training assistance would also make sense. With too many Americans in long-term unemployment or underemployed even with a moderate economic recovery, there is a useful role for government policies to help those in need gain skills to help make the transition to rising industries and occupations. Indeed, just a few weeks ago in his State of the Union address, Mr. Obama assigned Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to lead an “across-the-board reform of America’s training programs” to accomplish the goal of helping people gain skills needed for good jobs.

And yet just weeks later, without waiting for the promised effort to figure out which programs work, Mr. Obama in his budget seeks to add new money when there already are dozens of existing training programs with modest results.  There could be bipartisan support for training — after all, the House of Representatives last year passed legislation for training reform. Mr. Obama will want different specifics, but he should start with details on which programs work and how he will better spend existing funds rather than simply ask for yet more.

A similar point applies to Mr. Obama’s proposal for more spending on early childhood education, including his idea to give every American child access to preschool. As with training, research on early childhood education is by far not clear on which programs have lasting impacts. The bipartisan budget agreements reached late last year on how much to spend and early this year on where to spend added around $1 billion for more research. Mr. Obama deserves credit for pushing for increased funding for early childhood education, but the right approach is to figure out what works and can be scaled up rather than simply pouring in more money as in his budget. Again, the ball is in Mr. Obama’s court to come up with these details if he wants to garner bipartisan support for what could be a worthy initiative.

I favor additional spending on high-quality government programs, including on infrastructure, training, and early childhood education because all three are programs with the potential for important economic and social returns. But Mr. Obama’s budget would layer more spending on top of existing programs. This is the wrong approach and would face a considerable hurdle to find the necessary congressional support for enactment. These worthwhile initiatives in Mr. Obama’s budget could have bipartisan appeal — if Mr. Obama will take the steps to look for it.

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