GREGG: The era of discretion is over; time to cut the budget big

How many discretionary cuts can dance on the head of a pin? Not enough to have a significant impact on the impending fiscal meltdown of this nation.

If you combine all the president’s proposed “difficult” cuts and freezes with all the House Republican “draconian” cuts and sub-freezes, what you get is a great deal of debate over what amounts to 15 percent of total federal spending and essentially no long-term adjustment in the rest of the federal budget.

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In other words, you get less of the same and little substantive movement on the need to reduce America’s long-term deficits and debt.

In New Hampshire we still have in many communities what is known as a town meeting, where all the people who want to come can attend a meeting where the actual budget of the town is voted on line by line.

As you might expect, it is not unusual for these meetings to go well into the night. It is also not unusual to have most of the debate be over an item like what type of new cruiser should the police department buy — a Ford or a Toyota — because most everyone at the meeting has an opinion on cars.

At the same time, the large, complex items that involve most of the spending tend to pass with little debate, usually because they involve the schools or the fire departments.

They pass easily because no one understands or wants to contest those budgets because, for example, if their house catches on fire they want the fire department to come.

This federal budget debate is a lot like these town meetings. The places where the real spending occurs are being winked at and passed over while members of Congress and the administration fight it out over programs like home heating assistance.

It is worse than running in place because it uses up all sorts of political capital on efforts which, even if successful, would not lead to any significant impact on the problem.

The problem is that we have a population that is aging. We are going from 35 million retired people to 70 million in a few years. We have a healthcare system that is a metric of reimbursement chaos rewarding waste and the least efficient practices, layered with counter-productive bureaucracy, covering the needs of this exploding population. This system is called Medicare.

Of the approximately $80 trillion — yes, trillion — dollars of unfunded liability we have on the books today as a federal government, approximately $65 trillion is healthcare-related, with most of that being Medicare expenses we do not know how we are going to pay for.

Yet our president and his budgeters bury their heads in the sand on this issue while proclaiming their fiscal prudence.

It is a hard act to follow, but the Tea Party-inspired House seems to be equally content to wrap its collective budget initiative around the wheel of how many discretionary cuts it can make.

The time has come to stop this middle-ages exercise in extraneous debate and actually move into the realm of making some real progress on the deficit and debt. The way to do this is simple.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) should call President Obama, or vice-a-versa, and say “You, me and maybe an adult from the Senate need to go in a room somewhere, quietly, and work this out, and not come out until we do (unless, of course, the president is needed for an international crisis), because there is nothing more important to this country at this time than this issue.”

These are two very talented and practical people; the American people would have confidence in their conclusions and would accept the difficult choices they would have to make.

All we need is a little political leadership and courage to do this. Then, for the sport of it, everyone can go back to counting discretionary cuts on the head of the pin.

Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and also as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee.