“And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.” Those were President Obama’s words, in his first inaugural address in January 2009.
When Mr. Obama entered office, he said all the right things about getting Washington spending under control. He even promised to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Now, at the dawn of the president’s second term, any previous commitment to spending reform is out the window. Mr. Obama’s second inauguration speech made only the briefest mention of the deficit — before going on to talk about the need for more spending.
Yet what a president says doesn’t matter as much as what he does. By nominating Jack Lew to serve as Treasury secretary for his second term, Mr. Obama is sending a clear signal that we shouldn’t count on his administration for any progress on reducing the deficit and the debt.
The president nominated Mr. Lew to the Treasury post in January, and his confirmation before the Senate has not yet been scheduled. He comes to the position with a lengthy record of working in government, save for a brief period on Wall Street.
That record suggests Mr. Lew is an uncompromising proponent of unrestrained government spending. At a time of endless deficits (more than $1 trillion per year) and towering debt (more than $16.4 trillion and climbing), that’s an alarming prospect for Americans.
Consider the growth of entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which command the largest and fastest-growing portion of the federal budget. Runaway spending in these programs is the biggest driver behind our debt and deficit complications. Simply stated, there’s no reducing the debt and no return to fiscal sanity without serious reform to these programs. Such reform would make them solvent for future generations. Unfortunately, Mr. Lew’s record suggests he would hinder such reform.
At one time, Mr. Obama recognized the urgency of entitlement reform. Here’s what he told The Washington Post editorial board in 2008: “What we have done is kicked this can down the road. We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further. We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else’s.”
Almost five years later, Mr. Obama can lay no claim to having made any “hard choices” on entitlement reform. His nomination of Mr. Lew places the goal that much further out of reach. As a budget official and as White House chief of staff, Mr. Lew deemed entitlement spending untouchable.
A recent Bloomberg News story recounts how, during budget negotiations in 2011, Senate Republicans proposed that reductions in Medicaid spending be a part of any budget deal. Mr. Lew was apoplectic: “No!” he screamed into the phone. “We’re not going to do that.” So much for “seriousness.”
Mr. Lew’s lack of diplomacy and rigid defense of ever-growing entitlement programs has reportedly led congressional Republicans to view him as impossible to negotiate with. With Mr. Lew as the administration’s point man for economic policy, prepare for another four years of partisan gridlock and trench warfare, while our most pressing fiscal issues go unaddressed.
As a U.S. military veteran, I’m concerned by the implications of unchecked spending for our nation’s long-term security. Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned repeatedly that the national debt is “the single biggest threat to our national security.”
As Adm. Mullen has argued, “a nation with our current levels of unsustainable debt cannot hope to sustain for very long its superiority from a military perspective, or its influence in world affairs.”
Looking at the Lew nomination through that lens, I foresee a future in which both our economic strength and national security will be sacrificed in favor of endless, unchecked streams of spending on health care, retirement and debt. That’s no vision for a global superpower — but it’s the vision that Mr. Lew appears to hold.
Senators should think long and hard before confirming Mr. Lew to the position of Treasury secretary. We can’t afford more of his poor judgments.