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Obama, GOP Budgets Present Clear Choices

It is budget time, and that will be the core of this column. But first, I need to write a few words of disappointment over how the House handled the STOCK Act.

That starts with the process — a violation of the House majority pledge to open up the House and allow amendments to significant bills.

It goes to the next level, the ironic one — a bill to deal with insider trading written behind closed doors by insiders to dilute the Senate bill. This process was driven by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — but Democrats in the House went along with all of this instead of providing the votes to block the House version under suspension of the rules. An embarrassing performance for all.

But for now, the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act will take a back seat in public and pundit focus to the budget dynamics. The president’s budget is the news this week, but it is not the only fiscal story.

We have Mitt Romney’s and Rick Santorum’s speeches at the Conservative Political Action Conference that define their approaches to budgeting.

Romney said: “As president, I will not just slow the growth of government, I will cut it. I will not just freeze government’s share of the total economy, I will reduce it. And, without raising taxes or sacrificing America’s military superiority, I will finally balance the budget.”

Santorum went further, promising a fiscal plan “that says we are going to cut $5 trillion in five years, balance the budget in five years and in every year we will spend less money than the year before, year after year until ... the budget is balanced.”

Start with President Barack Obama’s budget, which, as with all presidential budgets, is designed not to be enacted but to set out presidential markers.

This one, of course, is also an election-year budget, and it reflects some major changes in approach this year compared with previous years. The main one is the direct approach to taxes — a willingness to put significant tax increases right into the budget plan.

That reflects both a political calculation and a substantive reality. The political calculation is that times have changed, that Democrats can propose some kinds of tax increases — on the highest earners — and actually benefit politically, not be bludgeoned.

The substantive reality is one that all the bipartisan commissions and gangs like Simpson-Bowles reached, that significantly reducing deficits without damaging the country’s health, safety and security will require more revenues as part of the package.

But by focusing only on the upper income levels, Obama’s plan would fail to provide the level of revenues necessary to cut the debt sufficiently in the out years.

The second change, more in emphasis than approach, is that getting the economy up and moving and creating more jobs is more significant and less dangerous than reducing deficits now. Once again that reflects politics and substance, a sense that jobs trump deficits right now, and the reality that cutting back now, with a weak domestic and shaky global economy, would be disastrous.

Two other elements stick out in the Obama budget.

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