Weekly Column by Sen. Lamar Alexander: “A Colossal Failure of Presidential Leadership”

Posted on March 15, 2013

You’ve heard a lot about the automatic spending cuts as a result of the sequester, which was passed as part of the Budget Control Act to reduce federal spending.  But as those cuts officially took effect in recent weeks, I’ve been calling for the president and Congress to face our country’s biggest problem: The out-of-control, automatic mandatory spending increases that are driving our fiscal woes in the first place.

So far, President Obama has spent his time running around the country blaming others over the past month for the sequester that he proposed, and signed into law, in 2011. This is not the way a president is supposed to act.  If the history books were written today, we would remember President Obama for the sequester.  

This is all made worse by Senate leadership deliberately bringing business to a halt – we have a fiscal crisis, we have not had a budget in four years, the Senate did not even pass any appropriations bills last year, there is little respect for committee work and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has used the gag rule 70 times to cut off amendments from the Republican side of the aisle.

Let's go back to why the president agreed to the sequester.  He agreed to it in 2011, after suggesting the process from which it came, in order to get $2.2 trillion in spending reductions so he could get a debt ceiling increase that lasted through the election.  And the second reason he did it is because he did not want to tackle out-of-control spending increases driven by entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid.

If the president wants to finally deal with spending, striking the “grand bargain” he’s been talking about lately to get our country’s fiscal house in order, he should send Congress a plan. We could consider it and have a result back to him within a couple of weeks.

The president could do what Senator Bob Corker, my fellow Tennessee Republican, and I have done. We’ve proposed the Fiscal Sustainability Act, which would reduce automatic spending increases by $1 trillion over the next ten years by reforming entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.  If the president doesn’t have a plan, he’s welcome to borrow from ours. 

If we don’t fix the debt and reform entitlement spending, we’ll face serious problems. The Medicare Trustees have said that by 2024, the program won’t have enough money to pay all of seniors’ hospital bills. And according to the Simpson-Bowles Fiscal Commission, by 2025, all the revenue the federal government collects will go toward paying for mandatory spending like entitlements and interest on the debt.

Robert Merry, a biographer of President James K. Polk, told me recently that every great crisis in our country has been solved by presidential leadership or not at all.  Yet President Obama seems determined not to exercise that sort of leadership.  It’s time for the president to show the kind of presidential leadership that President Johnson did on civil rights, that President Nixon did on China and that President Reagan did on fixing Social Security.

If he did, we could not only fix the sequester. We could address the automatic spending increases created by mandatory entitlement spending – which are the true driver of our nation’s fiscal problems. As Australian foreign minister Bob Carr, a friend of the U.S., said, we are one budget agreement away from reasserting our global preeminence – and, I’d add to that, one budget agreement away from getting the economy moving again.  The president has profited politically for blaming other people for problems he has caused – but I predict that won’t last forever.  



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