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Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2004 / 14 Shevat, 5764

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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Consumer Reports

The math Dubya forgot

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | President Bush is now paying for the big mistake he made in 2002 when he failed to veto a farm bill that was a corporate welfare bonanza for American agribusiness.

Actually, American taxpayers are paying for that mistake.

The Bushies have announced that the president's new spending plan would halve the deficit in five years, but it turns out that half doesn't mean half of the $521 billion projected for 2005, but half of the deficit's percentage of the gross domestic product.

This is the administration's too-little too-late response to the realization that its first-term spending spree isn't sitting well with those who have to bankroll it. Only three years ago, Bush proposed a $1.96 trillion budget; now he has upped the ante to $2.4 trillion for 2005, excluding the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In defense of the president, it should be noted that much of the increase is due to events beyond his control. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks blew a hole in the nation's economy — and revealed the need for Washington to spend more on national security to prevent further attacks. More than three-quarters of the increase in federal discretionary spending is directly related to America's "response to the attacks," according to Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten. Revenues already had shrunk because of a recession that was spawned before Bush took office.

But editorial writers are giving Bush little slack because he failed to check Capitol Hill's tendency toward profligacy. Not only did Bush not veto the farm bill, he let members know he wouldn't veto it — which only encouraged them to spend even more. When Congress racked up the tab on his spending proposals, he often just signed them. Big mistake.

Simply put, Bush broke the covenant Republican officeholders are supposed to share with voters: that they'll be tight with other people's money. (At the very least, GOP presidents are supposed to be cheaper than Democratic presidents.)

"They're only the cheap party when they're in opposition here," noted Chris Edwards of the libertarian Cato Institute. Congressional Republicans kept President Clinton from overspending, Edwards noted, recalling the 1995 House bid to eliminate the Commerce and Education departments. Now last decade's skinflints are on the gravy train.

When government isn't divided, Edwards continued, "If the president doesn't exercise leadership, Congress just descends into following their own parochial interests." And: "If (members) don't see the president taking a harder line, they think they should get their share of the pie."




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It's pretty clear that politics got Bush — and your tax dollars — into this hole. Perhaps the president didn't think it was worth expending political capital on an uphill bid to cut spending. Besides, voters like big guvmint programs. Worse, the Bushies can be overly impressed with themselves when they manage to steal Democratic issues, like the Bush-backed prescription drug program.

The result is that Bush OKd a prescription-drug benefit that America can't afford. Now, in an election year, Bush has to make cuts he does not want to make and the Bushies have allowed Democrats to pose as fiscal tightwads. (They're not. The Dems wanted to pass a much pricier prescription drug bill, but that doesn't matter now.)

So, Bush's "reduction in the growth of discretionary spending unrelated to security" — Bolten's words — doesn't go far enough. Out of a $2.4 trillion budget, Bush League cuts but a paltry $4.9 billion?

Call that a too-modest beginning. Next, Bush should work with Congress to trim back the new prescription drug benefit that on paper already has grown from a projected cost of $395 billion to $534 billion over 10 years. Washington should work toward making the program focus on catastrophic drug costs, and increase the premiums.

His threat to veto the pork-heavy transportation bill, at least, may be working. But there are a number of voters who will never believe Bush wants to be suitably stingy about spending their money until he takes back his proposed $18 million increase in the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Too much is at stake here: Bush cut taxes in order to stimulate the economy, and that is working. But a ballooning deficit threatens to hurt the recovery. It has become a club Democrats have every right to use to bash Bush for fiscal irresponsibility. There's only one way to blunt those blows: Cut.

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© 2003, Creators Syndicate