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Obama’s federal spending freeze

The White House has been cranking out initiatives daily in an effort to regain the public’s confidence, and on Tuesday, its target was the enormous federal deficit. Aides to President Obama disclosed that his forthcoming budget will call for a three-year freeze on “non-security discretionary funding.” That’s bureaucratese for capping everything but defense, homeland security, veterans, international affairs and entitlements (for example, Medicare and welfare), with no adjustments for inflation. That would result in $250 billion less being spent over the coming decade than currently projected, said Rob Nabors, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Although it’s merely a gesture, it’s a good one that sends the right signals to Congress and the public.

Skeptics were quick to note how little of the budget actually would be affected -- about 17% -- and how small the savings seem in comparison to the $6 trillion in total deficits expected over the coming decade. And presidential budgets are just proposals; Congress controls the purse strings. It’s hard to say how well received Obama’s latest offering will be, given how few details have been released. The official line is simply that the administration’s budget for fiscal 2010 (which runs from October 2010 through September 2011) will call for cutting some programs and increasing others.

All the same, the specifics of Obama’s budget aren’t as significant as his judgment that the economy will have recovered enough by October for the federal government to take its foot off the fiscal gas pedal. When the recession hit, it made sense for Washington to try to stimulate the economy with deficit spending. But Congress, backed by some economists, has used the sluggish recovery as an excuse to continue expanding domestic programs despite the shortfall in tax revenue. Obama’s proposed freeze helps make the case that a bit of belt-tightening won’t stall the economy.

The administration’s strategy for attacking the mounting national debt also includes enacting comprehensive healthcare reform and establishing a commission to help close the long-term budget gap. Those are worthy goals, although achieving them will depend on a rare show of bipartisan support. (Even that may not be enough -- witness Tuesday’s defeat of a bipartisan Senate proposal to create a deficit commission.) The president’s call for a freeze is a much more limited step, but it’s a good start. We look forward to seeing how he plans to pare federal programs, and we urge Congress to get serious about curbing its spending appetite.

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