Jewish World Review March 26, 2002 / 13 Nissan, 5762
And it's certainly more honest than the House Republican budget, which doesn't provide a guide even for House spending choices and tries to hide the true GOP priority of extending President Bush's 2001 tax cuts.
The Democratic proposal introduced by Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.) isn't politically bold.
It grants Bush all he's asked for in spending on defense and homeland security for the next two years and avoids the potentially risky step of calling for repeal or delay of his tax cuts.
The Democrats' plan calls for increased health, education and highway spending and debt relief by insisting that the Bush tax cuts not be extended past 2010, thereby saving $600 billion in 2011 and 2012.
The savings are highly speculative, but the budget represents a clear choice for voters in November: Do they want to make the tax cuts permanent, as Republicans suggest, or would they rather double the President's proposal for Medicare prescription drugs and insurance subsidies for the uninsured?
A number of polls recently have suggested that the public actually would support delay or repeal of Bush's $1.6 trillion in tax cuts.
The latest, released by Ipsos-Reid last week, found that 38 percent of voters rate education as their highest priority for federal spending, 25 percent said it's drug coverage for the elderly, and only 14 percent chose tax cuts.
Last month, Ipsos-Reid reported that more than 70 percent of voters would forgo tax cuts to pay for improved education and a prescription drug benefit.
A Pew Research Center poll showed that the public prefers postponing or reducing the tax cut as a way of paying higher defense and homeland security costs, rather than adding to the federal deficit or reducing spending on domestic programs.
But Democrats have been hammered by Republicans for even suggesting the idea of "raising taxes," so they won't go into the elections flying that banner.
Another theme evident in the Conrad budget fits in with the party's aim of making Social Security a campaign issue.
Bush's budget requires spending Social Security tax revenues for the next 10 years. Democrats are offering a "circuit breaker" mechanism designed to prevent Congress from dipping into Social Security by 2008.
They falsely imply that raiding Social Security will somehow reduce the incomes of current retirees. It will, however, prevent paying down the federal debt, an action that would strengthen the economy and help secure the retirements of baby boomers and their children.
Meantime, the House Republican budget pretends to achieve balance by abandoning Congressional Budget Office estimates of revenues and spending and substituting more optimistic ones from the administration's Office of Management and Budget.
It also covers only a five-year period, concealing the impact of tax-cut extensions the administration and GOP leaders are openly seeking.
Neither Congressional budget takes account of major items that Congress certainly will pass eventually, notably a $300 billion adjustment to free upper-middle-class families from paying the alternative minimum tax.
The divided Congress almost certainly will fail to agree on a budget resolution this year. The Senate may reject its own Budget Committee's product, and the House GOP plan is an object of derision among Democrats.
So appropriators will be left to their own devices, and the danger is that the wartime lifting of spending restraints will set off a new era of deficits and mounting federal debt that will raise long-term interest rates.
The spending spree probably will start just after Congress returns from its spring recess and takes up a Bush administration supplemental appropriations request that could be as high as $30 billion, raising this year's deficit well above $100 billion.
The must-pass supplemental, mainly designed to pay Afghanistan war costs and meet new homeland security needs, is likely to tempt Members to add extraneous spending for items they fear may not make it into fiscal 2003 appropriations.
And then, since Bush already has proposed an unbalanced budget for 2003 (legitimately justified by the war against terrorism), Congress may well yield to election-year pressures to expand spending and deficits.
Even the Congressional calendar could work to boost spending, according to House Appropriations Staff Director James Dyer.
Speaking at a budget seminar hosted by the public relations firm Fleishman Hillard, Dyer said that with only 50 legislative workdays scheduled before mid-October, pressure to get home to campaign could encourage settling differences by spending more.
Also at the session, former White House Chief of Staff and Budget Director Leon Panetta said that the government is back on a path of "borrow and spend" after a tortured period of trying to get deficits under control.
Fleishman Hillard's budget expert, Stan Collender, said the trend would continue until homeowners rebel against high mortgage interest rates, especially on adjusted-rate mortgages, and demand controls on spending. But that won't be happening soon.