By ANN McFEATTERS
President Bush’s spending blueprint for the rest of his term is what his father used to call “voodoo economics” — cut taxes, increase spending on the military and balance the budget — with a lot of devils in the details.
Nobody is going to spend much time on the president’s massive $2.9 trillion budget proposal as written. With Democrats controlling, barely, the House and Senate, it’s proverbially dead on arrival. But it is important to look at the budget because this once-a-year exercise tells us where Bush wants to take us for the next two years.
The thinking in the White House is that if unrealistic budgeting was good enough for Ronald Reagan, it’s good enough for his wannabe clone. But Reagan’s sleight-of-hand figuring gave the country enormous deficits. Also, George W. Bush is not Ronald W. Reagan. This president has already spent his political capital on Iraq.
This White House is to be congratulated for finally including the cost of the war in Iraq in its budget — instead of sending up off-budget spending resolutions, as it has been doing. (We will have spent more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than we did in Vietnam, even adjusted for inflation.) But the buck stops there.
The meat of the budget calls for making the president’s tax cuts permanent (although that involves some untruthfulness, because the evil alternative minimum tax that will wallop the middle class upside the head harder each year is not dealt with in the budget). Nobody wants a tax increase, but the truth is that Bush’s tax cuts are aimed at the wealthy, not the middle class.
White House insistence that this budget will balance the books in five years is preposterous. The idea is to end deficit spending by making deep, deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, which is not politically possible, and just about every other program to help the poor, the elderly and the lower middle class, veterans, the environment and little kids.
At the same time, billions more are to be spent — not on armor and replacement equipment and training for the troops, but on pie-in-the sky military projects that are still in the drawing stage (the word “pork” comes to mind). And, oh yes, the president proposes to neatly end the war in Iraq by 2009. The budget calls for not a dime of spending in Iraq or Afghanistan after that. (What happens to al Qaeda and the “war on terror” is also a mystery.)
With our energy dependence on the Middle East a major worry, Bush proposes to spend more on ethanol, even though creating ethanol out of U.S. agricultural products takes a lot of energy in and of itself. But that inconvenience aside, industry officials are now saying the president’s plan is rhetoric and little more. It is not, say the experts, the kind of massive new energy-independence program the president promised.
Bush’s budget also shattered the dying myth that bipartisanship was going anywhere this year. Democrats are calling the budget cynical and manipulative and dishonest and aimed at poking a stick in their eye. It’s almost as though the election last November never happened, and the White House decided not to be realistic but to instead send up a dream book of what his brand of conservatism would like to have in a fantasy world. (You haven’t heard the term “compassionate conservatism” from Bush in quite a while. This budget officially killed it.)
According to Rob Portman, a former Ohio congressman and the president’s latest budget guru, one way to balance the budget is to improve tax collection and get more of those billions of dollars that having been eluding the IRS. No more tax fraud! (The idea is to give the IRS bureaucrats more to do their job. If only previous presidents had thought of that!)
Bush says his plan spends more on health coverage for uninsured children. He wants $5 billion to be spent by the federal government and the states. But experts say a minimum of $15 billion is needed just to keep children covered at the same level they are now. (Those kids might get their vaccinations, but they wouldn’t be going to college. The budget proposes deep cuts in federal subsidies for student loans.)
Most improbably, the budget has virtually no room for emergencies. Another 9/11 or another Hurricane Katrina would bust the budget. There is no money for a rainy-day fund. But at the same time, the budget is in deficit for about $239 billion a year for the remaining time Bush is in office.
This is not a serious budget. It will not be treated seriously on Capitol Hill. It’s almost as if the president doesn’t really care anymore.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)aol.com)