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in 2009 there is no bigger issue

What I Learned From the 'Mob'

Voters don't believe the White House claim that we'll save money by spending more.

By TOM COBURN   WSJ, Sept 2, 2009

I spoke with thousands of voters at town-hall meetings this summer.  What I gathered from them is that it's not just the proposed overhaul of health care that has them upset. Many also expressed a sense of betrayal. In spite of their hope for change, it still appears that the government in Washington is run for its own benefit and the benefit of special interests—not for the benefit of the American people. The folks I met with also don't trust politicians in Washington to address mounting long-term challenges to our economy.

It's not just the attendees of town-halls meetings in Oklahoma. Voters across the country are telling Washington what's on their mind, if only more people inside the Beltway would listen.   A Rasmussen poll released last month showed that 40% of voters said that cutting the deficit in half by 2012 should be President Barack Obama's top priority. Only 21% said health-care reform should be his No. 1 priority.

Notwithstanding these polling results, the administration and Congress have responded by trying to win public support on the strength of an argument that's too clever to be true. They say that the key to saving money is spending money, a lot of money.  And they've done just that with a $787 billion stimulus program as well as billions in bailouts and proposals to spend vast sums on health-care reform and other things. Their belief seems to be that every government expenditure grows the economy or can be counterbalanced with cost savings.

It's a confusing argument, and it's flat wrong, particularly with regard to health care. The Congressional Budget Office has said as much when it stated a few weeks ago that the health-care legislation before Congress fails to restrain costs and instead "significantly expands the federal responsibility for health-care costs."

A more convincing argument would be this: Let's save money by spending less. This argument doesn't require a clever explanation, but it does requiring putting the government in the position where it has to set realistic priorities. Most families realize that they can't live indefinitely on borrowed money and would be delighted if the government joined them in the real world of tough spending choices.

However, Congress has shown no sign of departing from the status quo. Spending bills continue to grow faster than the rate of inflation as members still earmark funds for special projects for parochial interests. The most recent appropriations bill to pass the Senate, the Agriculture Department bill, included a 15% spending increase over the previous year's bill, which itself was a 21% spending increase over the preceding year. In today's economy, such spending increases make Americans realize that the political class isn't even close to getting it.

Last week, White House Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orszag released a review of the budget that adjusted our long-term deficit up by $2 trillion—more than double the cost of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. In his 750 word report, Mr. Orszag cast blame on "previous administrations"—the Bush administration—five times and didn't once take aim at today's Congress or the annual orgy of wasteful, duplicative and special-interest spending in which it is now engaging.

Voters understand that our economic challenges hardly started with George W. Bush, and that at some point the administration has to stop blaming the last guy in the Oval Office and start providing real solutions.  America is facing an economic reckoning because the cornerstone programs of the welfare state—Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—will soon be bankrupt and will likely require massive tax increases to stay afloat.

The message the appropriators took from Mr. Orszag's finger-pointing is that it's OK to continue business as usual. I believe Mr. Obama is open to a different course. I was one of the few Republicans who applauded his modest call for specific spending cuts earlier this year.  If he overrides the dogmatic wing of his party that believes spending money during a recession is always helpful—however wasteful it may be—he'll find an army of allies among the American people.

Congressional leaders have been using apocalyptic rhetoric about angry "mobs," "un-American" protestors and "evil-mongers" at town halls because they know that voter concerns about spending may not only derail the "public option" in health-care reform but could turn into a referendum on our real problems—our crushing burden of government and the politicians who defend the status quo.  For the sake of future generations, such a referendum couldn't come soon enough.

Dr. Coburn, a family practice physician, is a Republican senator from Oklahoma.