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Bush now the austerity president
An editorial / By Dale McFeatters
Scripps Howard News Service


February 08, 2005

In the annual budget he sends to Congress, the president details his policies for the coming fiscal year and states his priorities by the amount of money he'd like to spend on them. The Constitution gives Congress the absolute power of the purse and, in that sense, the president's budget is really a wish list.

But the document that President Bush sent to Congress Monday is exceptionally revealing about how he sees his second term. If during his first four years the president allowed federal spending to rise unchecked, in his next four years the president plans to be Mr. Fiscal Conservative - on everything except tax cuts and Social Security reform.

His $2.57 trillion budget would boost spending on defense and on homeland security. But it would limit increases on all other discretionary domestic spending, basically most of the Cabinet departments, to 1 percent this year and 1 percent next. Given the natural increase in demand for programs and inflation, these token increases amount to real cuts, the first since the Reagan administration.

Bush has also proposed, as he has done before, eliminating or vastly reducing 150 federal programs, many of them with strong constituencies and powerful congressional backers. Already farmers (big cuts in farm subsidies), veterans groups (cuts in vets' drug benefits), mayors (cuts in community development aid), governors (cuts in Medicaid) and Amtrak supporters (cuts in operating subsidies) have geared up to thwart the president's plan.

The president's goal is to halve the deficit over five years. But the problem with five-year forecasts is that they fail to take into account the immense impact of Bush's tax cuts being made permanent, the cost of new tax cuts he is proposing and the transition costs of privatizing portions of Social Security. And the budget omits altogether the $600 billion over 10 years estimated cost of fixing the Alternative Minimum Tax, a parallel tax system intended to insure that the wealthy pay at least some tax but now ensnaring taxpayers for whom it wasn't intended.

White House budget director Joshua Bolten said the problem with 10-year forecasts is that they are generally "wildly" off the mark, which is true but didn't stop the White House from using them to justify the first round of Bush tax cuts. And when the 10-year numbers started to look bad, the White House went to five-year forecasts. There are good reasons for not wanting to look too closely at what happens after 2010.

The president's budget is in many ways a radical document, but this Congress is not a radical Congress and the Republicans who run it greeted the budget's arrival with something less than unbridled enthusiasm. They are the ones who have to make the actual cuts and then go home and explain them to the voters.

But then one of the virtues of being a lame-duck president is that Bush is now free to pick these fights and a president can wish, can't he?


Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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