- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid are a larger long-term problem for the federal budget than Social Security, Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin said yesterday.

Mr. Holtz-Eakin predicted a $368 billion deficit for fiscal 2005, which ends Sept. 30, a figure he said was “marginally” better than the $412 billion deficit last year.

Medicare and Medicaid costs, which rose last year when Congress passed the Medicare prescription drug bill and will rise again next year when full coverage takes effect, is the major hindrance to long-term fiscal security, he said.

Social Security costs will rise by about 4.4 percent annually until 2015, shortly after the first baby boomers become eligible for retirement — but Mr. Holtz-Eakin said the increase will be dwarfed by the growth in government medical coverage.

Given current spending trends, the nation cannot grow its way out of future deficits without the government’s raising taxes, and the economy and productivity growing at a historically high rate, he said.

“The summary is that the budget outlook is a bit better than last year. The outlook for the future is, in a baseline sense, a bit worse,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said.

Not included in his projection are the costs for overhauling the Social Security system, for making the Bush tax cuts permanent, for waging the war on terror, for a continued military buildup, and for interest payments on the national debt.

Democrats said those undisclosed costs amount to about $5.4 trillion.

“Their projection is that the deficit this year will be $368 billion. But that includes very little of the amount of money allocated for Iraq and Afghanistan, and nothing of the $80 billion supplemental which is coming,” said Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., South Carolina Democrat and ranking member on the House Budget Committee. “At best, we’re treading water, going nowhere.”

White House officials yesterday confirmed that the administration will request $80 billion or more in a supplemental appropriation this year for Iraq and Afghanistan operations.

“Most of these funds will support American troops on the ground by continuing to provide them with the equipment and other supplies they need,” President Bush said. “The request also provides for the continued pursuit of al Qaeda and other terrorist elements in Afghanistan and elsewhere, while supporting the great progress Afghanistan has made toward joining the community of free nations.”

The appropriation also is expected to include additional funds for tsunami relief and for helping Palestinians build a democratic state.

Meanwhile, a senior Bush administration official told reporters last night that the White House is projecting a record federal deficit of $427 billion.

The source, among three who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the estimate was conservative and assumes some higher spending than other analysts use.

Still, the official said: “Our projections will show we remain on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009.”

Many in Congress agreed yesterday that the fiscal picture was bleak and emphasized the need for restraint.

“CBO’s report reflects the challenges that we know lie ahead,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican and chairman of the budget committee. “The deficit is too high, and too much of our spending is on automatic pilot. We must get serious about putting our financial house in order, beginning with short-term deficit reduction and then long-term control of entitlement spending.”

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said Mr. Bush needs to face reality and work in a bipartisan fashion to “get our fiscal house in order.”

“Instead, as the budget forecast by the Congressional Budget Office confirmed today, he is pursuing fiscal policies that will force future generations to pay our bills and leave them at the mercy of foreign countries that hold more and more American debt,” the Maryland Democrat said.

The Office of Management and Budget will request the funding after the fiscal 2006 budget is delivered Feb. 7.

“I am anxious to see the details of the White House request. In past requests, the White House has asked for blanket authority to spend the funds however it sees fit. I worry where that leads,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and the most senior member of the Senate.

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