Paul Ryan confronts Obama budget chief on broken debt promise

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) confronted President Obama's budget director Wednesday about the president's broken promise to halve the deficit by the end of his first term. 

“We’ve heard a lot of excuses from this administration for why the president broke his promise. But what we haven’t heard is any semblance of accountability,” Ryan told acting White House Budget Director Jeff Zients.

The Obama budget projects a deficit of $901 billion for 2013, which is not less than half of the $1.4 trillion budget deficit recorded in 2009.  

ADVERTISEMENT
Zients has said Obama's promise is met in 2014 and blamed the depth of the 2009 recession for the failure to meet the target.

Once questions began, Ryan argued that the Obama budget only cuts the deficit by $400 billion over 10 years, compared to the $4 trillion in deficit reduction the administration claims.

By House GOP measurements, the budget plan has $1.5 trillion in spending increases and $1.9 trillion in tax increases.

Ryan said the $2 trillion reduction cited by the administration shouldn't count since it stems from the August debt deal, and dismissed the $800 billion from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a gimmick.

Zients argued that capping war spending prevents it from being used by the Pentagon elsewhere. He said that the “marathon” of deficit discussions began before August, so it is right to count the savings toward the deficit cuts.

He said that the $4 trillion in savings comes from an honest measuring stick that compares the budget against likely policy choices.

“If this is the way we measure reality, heaven help us,” Ryan said.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said the Obama budget would lead the country to financial catastrophe.

“This plan is Greece’s plan,” Simpson bellowed at Zients.

“We are not going to be Greece,” Zients said, citing low interest rates on U.S. Treasury bonds. He said the budget is an important “milestone” on the path to dealing with the debt.

Zients struck back when asked why the budget does not prevent Medicare from becoming insolvent after the coming decade. 

He noted that the House budget from 2012 would force seniors to pay more than $6,500 per year for healthcare and ends the Medicare guarantee.

“The Republican budget breaks that compact,” he said.

In his opening statement, Ryan said “the president of the United States remains on the outside looking in” as bipartisan entitlement reforms are being developed. He has worked with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to develop a partial privatization plan for Medicare. 

“Instead of working with us, the president has demonized our ideas to save and strengthen health and retirement security programs. He fought to keep his reckless spending spree going," Ryan said.

Ahead of the hearing, committee Republicans joked to Zients that his hearing was going to be tough.

“This has got to be one of the fun days of your life,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

“You were thrown into the breach,” Ryan said.

Zients was named acting director after Jack Lew became White House chief of staff at the beginning of February. He weathered a confrontational hearing at the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday, where he also faced tough questions from Republicans about Obama's fiscal plan.

— This story was last updated at 11:38 a.m.