Yesterday, congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, gave the annual Whittington Lecture in Georgetown’s Gonda Theatre. Van Hollen’s speech, which addressed the recent budget debate, advocated for the strengths of President Obama’s blueprint while critiquing the budget plan recently passed by the Republican-controlled house.
The Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s annual Whittington Lecture is held in memoriam of Leslie Whittington, a former professor and GPPI associate dean who perished during the 9/11 hijacking of Flight 77, the plane which was used to attack the Pentagon.
Van Hollen began his address by acknowledging the significance of the lecture’s timing. “When I think about the death of Osama bin Laden, I thought about how fitting it was that we gather here in [Whittington’s] memory.”
Transitioning to the economy, Van Hollen emphasized the far-reaching impact of the budget debate. “Perhaps no challenge is as great as finding a way to work together to ensure that the U.S. remains a vibrant, dynamic economic powerhouse it has been,” he said.
Van Hollen stated that President Obama’s ten-year budget plan is as close as the U.S. gets to a blueprint for how best to move the country forward, before proposing a three-part litmus test to gauge the effectiveness of the President’s and the House’s proposals.
The first prong addressed whether the budget strengthens the economy by encouraging innovation in the free market. Van Hollen stressed that such innovation should include developments in education, infrastructure, and scientific research – all of which, he said, propel the U.S. as a competitor on the world stage.
Van Hollen argued that the President’s budget includes such investments, with particular emphasis on clean energy research. On the other hand, he noted that the House’s budget would not only decrease funding for scientific research, but would cut funds for Pell Grants, Head Start and other early education programs.
The second portion of the congressman’s litmus test addressed entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Van Hollen framed these programs as part of America’s social contract, arguing that lawmakers should continue to adapt and reform them while maintaining their underlying integrity.
According to Van Hollen, the President’s budget focuses on reducing health care costs for Medicare and Medicaid, maintaining quality care outside the private health care market and protecting the states from increasing Medicaid costs in the event of an economic downturn. In contrast, he argued that the Republican proposal fails to achieve these goals and instead undermines Medicare and Medicaid through funding cuts and detrimental restructuring.
Van Hollen’s final criterion was sustainability: he argued that this goal does not necessarily require a balanced budget every year, but that the current pace of the deficit could not continue. However, Van Hollen stressed that any plan to address the deficit should not jeopardize the very fragile economic recovery.
“We need a plan to reduce the deficit in a steady, predictable way,” he said.
The President’s budget plan, he said, takes a balanced approach to gradually eliminating the deficit. Van Hollen noted that the budget features spending cuts – both to the defense budget and to non-defense discretionary spending – and revenue-boosting measures such as allowing the Bush tax cuts to lapse. He criticized the House budget’s sustainability by arguing that it tries to address the runaway deficit through spending cuts alone, which come almost exclusively from nondefense discretionary programs.
“The Republican plan is unbalanced; it is lopsided. It is an irresponsible approach,” he explained. He frequently cited the findings of the Simpson-Bowles Commission on fiscal responsibility and reform, as well as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
During the brief audience question-and-answer period that followed his speech, Van Hollen expressed pessimism about the next budget debate in October. This debate will center on creating a budget for the entire fiscal year, rather than a stopgap continuing resolution.
“It looks right now that it’s shaping up to be the same kind of showdown we saw over a small piece of the budget,” he said.