In Defense of White House Budget Gimmicks

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The federal deficit has stretched to $941 billion in the first eight months of Fiscal Year 2010, and politicians are getting nervous that all that red ink is starting to stink. That puts the White House in the awkward position on standing behind more stimulus -- which would raise the deficit -- while claiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility. How do you pull that off?

Well, you suggest small-ball reforms -- or, as some critics contend, gimmicks. First, President Obama has proposed a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary funding, which amounts to about a fifth of the budget. Second, he's requested the authority to lightly edit spending bills and send them back to Congress for an expedited vote without amendments. Third, he's asking agencies to make plans to cut 5% of their budget.

These ideas tend draw much mocking from politicians and the commentariat, and maybe it seems a little weird to grow a trillion-dollar deficit and pare it down with limited freezes (like planting a Redwood and pruning it with a nail file). But I see nothing wrong with these ideas. They're non-binding, forward looking, and potentially useful. Do we think government agencies should never have to identify programs they consider marginally unecessary? Is it pointless to even threaten to rein in earmarks with a light veto power? We should be running a large deficit in 2010, and we should be thinking about small ways to improve our medium-term budget.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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