WASHINGTON - The meeting began amicably enough, with handshakes, welcomes and appreciation. But the battle of words between House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jeffrey Zients, quickly heated up.
Zients didn’t expect to be in front of the committee Wednesday to defend President Barack Obama’s $3.8 trillion budget. Former OMB director Jack Lew, who was primarily responsible for preparing the budget and would have testified, was tapped Jan. 9 to become White House chief of staff.
“We understand that you are testifying on short notice, and we recognize the difficulty of that,” Ryan said. But Ryan quickly transitioned from opening pleasantries to savaging the budget that Zients, also OMB’s deputy director, helped to craft.
Ryan called the president’s budget a “stunning dereliction of duty,” for its lack of long-term deficit reduction and called into question the administration’s claim that the budget would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade.
“I don’t know how one can claim that this budget achieves these things when this is something Congress already passed,” Ryan said.
Ryan was referring to the more than $2 trillion in savings enacted under last year’s Budget Control Act.
“Taking credit in this budget for the $2 trillion dollars that we’ve worked together to achieve I think makes a lot of sense,” Zients said.
At several points, Zients and committee members talked over each other, including repeated requests not to interrupt each other.
Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., and Zients were talking over each other for such an extended time that Ryan intervened.
“The time of the gentleman has expired; he’s obviously not going to answer the question,” Ryan said as Garrett and Zients sparred over when, if at all, the budget would become balanced under the president’s proposal.
Zients and Democratic committee members repeatedly emphasized fiscal and economic situations that Obama inherited from the Bush administration.
“When the president took office, he inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said. “The economy was in total freefall, contracting at a rate of 8.9 percent.”
Zients said the primary focus of the budget is to help foster economic growth, which would aid in deficit reduction.
“Eight point three percent unemployment is completely unacceptable. The president is making investments to continue the job growth,” Zients said.
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