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Painless guns and butter
by John Hall
Media General News Service


February 08, 2005

Washington - President Bush's proposal to whack 150 federal programs sent up a collective bipartisan howl from Capitol Hill, but it was mostly for show. There were growing signs that most of the sacred cows would survive unscathed.

"We're going to have a fair amount of butter," predicted Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, as he took charge of the president's $2.57 trillion guns-and-butter budget. "It's just not going to be in excess."

Bush gave Congress the tab for $427 billion in budgetary red ink that, together, they have rung up in the last year. If he doesn't put the lid on spending, the borrowing will have to go even higher in fiscal 2006 and beyond. Over the next 10 years, according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office, $5.8 trillion more in debt will be heaped on unless things change - a shocking burden for future generations if it turns out to be true.

Some fiscal watchdogs groups, such as the non-partisan Concord Coalition, have become extraordinarily bleak about the nation's long-term economic outlook if these numbers aren't changed.

The coalition last week blamed the spiral of deficits on Bush's first-term tax cuts and the spending hikes he signed. It warned that their greatest impact will fall in a perfect storm right at the time baby boomers become eligible to receive retirement and Medicare benefits. That will accelerate the growth in spending, and the burden on future generations.

In presenting his budget, Bush avoided any such alarmist rhetoric but seemed to accept some of the logic. He told Congress that his first-term tax cuts and much of the spending were necessary because of 9/11 and the corporate greed scandals, which took a terrible toll on the economy and required a big jolt of fiscal stimulus. But he conceded that it was time to begin living within "sensible spending limits," suggesting perhaps that this hasn't been the case in recent years.

Gregg said Bush was "calling us back to our roots" of fiscal conservatism, from which Republicans appear to have strayed recently to the shiny new path of Keynesian neo-conservatism.

Democrats saw Bush's budget as not sensible at all. The same budget that called for $1.1 billion in cuts in the food stamp program over 10 years, they said, also included $1.08 trillion in permanent tax cuts over the same period, including many for the society's richest citizens through dividends tax cuts and capital gains rate reductions.

At a brief news conference Monday, Bush was asked about the cuts for the poor. He said everyone, including "the poor and disadvantaged," must answer the question of whether the goals of each program were being met. Trying to draw a picture of a single mother struggling on food stamps to feed her family and asking whether the quarterly goals of the food stamp program are being met takes imagination.

Give Bush credit, however, for taking on the fiscal fight. The 2002 farm bill that was passed midway in his first term, and that he signed, became a signal of Katie-bar-the-door profligacy that helped ignite big spending on both sides of the aisle. Bush wants to get some of it back from the sugar lobby and the grain lobby, but they are vowing to protect every dollar.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other fiscal conservatives welcomed Bush's attempt to get control of spending, although many thought it was too late.

Bush said his objective was to hold the growth of "discretionary spending" - the part that the government isn't obliged by law to spend - to less than the rate of inflation. If followed to the letter, the deficit would drop in a steady glide path from $390 billion next year all the way down to $207 billion in 2010, the first year after Bush's successor is inaugurated.

But critics said those numbers don't include several items that will accumulate and add to the costs of government. These include the continuing costs of the war in Iraq and privatizing a portion of the Social Security system into personal investment accounts.

Some Republicans are complaining that many of the 150 discretionary program cuts Bush is seeking were the same ones he has been asking for over and over again.

They and many Democrats are whining that Bush does not have to worry about re-election, but they do. And some of them have begun to grumble about the amount of pain he has begun to ask of them.

He should have demanded more.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,


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