Bush feeding the beast under the table


CHICAGO - When President Bush unveiled his budget for next year, Democrats and Republicans immediately fell to arguing about the need for tax cuts, the dangers of deficits and assorted other issues.

But they did find something they could agree on - that the administration was taking a tough line on spending.

"This budget is a rip-off for the rich that starves our schools, health care and even homeland security," fumed Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. The administration made no apologies for practicing what it called "spending restraint."

Oklahoma Republican Sen. Don Nickles, chairman of the Budget Committee, urged his colleagues to heed Mr. Bush's courageous call for frugality.

The question that hasn't been asked is: What frugality? Under this budget, federal spending will rise by $89 billion, an increase of more than 4 percent - even though the inflation rate is expected to be only 2.1 percent. Washington is not getting a cutback or a freeze. It's getting a raise.

Even the 4 percent figure makes the budget look leaner than it is, because it comes on top of hefty increases in spending in previous years. Spending jumped by a gaudy $276 billion in Mr. Bush's first two budgets. Give me a fat salary increase over the next two years, and I'll be happy to settle for a mere 4 percent in the third year.

Mr. Bush would like the public to think of him as the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. In fact, he's holding the hose. When it comes to domestic discretionary programs - everything but entitlements like Social Security and Medicare - Mr. Bush wants to spend more money, not less. His budget for these programs, excluding homeland security, calls for an increase of 3.1 percent.

Chris Edwards, director of fiscal policy at the libertarian Cato Institute, notes that under this plan, non-defense discretionary outlays, adjusted for inflation, would expand by 18 percent in Mr. Bush's first three years. In Bill Clinton's first three years, those outlays actually fell.

In reality, the increases proposed by the administration are just an opening bid. Democrats would obviously like to spend even more, and their GOP colleagues are not about to make a fuss about a measly few billion dollars here and there. Mr. Bush, for his part, has never vetoed a spending bill.

What we are led to believe is that the administration is scrimping on domestic programs in order to free up money that is indisputably needed for national defense and homeland security. But the need for greater outlays in those areas is not as obvious as the administration claims.

We wouldn't require such a large Pentagon budget if the administration weren't so committed to unnecessary military undertakings, such as overthrowing Saddam Hussein, that are likely to make us less safe, not more. And if consolidating all homeland security functions in one department will make the government more efficient, how come it's not saving any money?

In any case, the administration isn't paying for these tasks by cutting the domestic budget. It's paying for them by sending the bill to our kids.

In Washington, of course, it's taken for granted that budgets should expand in good times and bad. Anything less is regarded as a monstrous deprivation.

Critics noted with horror that although the Department of Education will get 3.4 percent more money in 2004 than this year, some of its programs will get less money than in the past.

Hmm. If some education programs are getting less than 3.4 percent increases, that means some must be getting more. But apparently the only fair approach is to increase them all by the same generous amount, every year.

The Washington Post interpreted the budget to mean Mr. Bush has "stepped back from his 'compassionate conservatism' agenda and picked up the fallen standard of the Reagan Revolution." Really? During his first three years, Mr. Reagan managed to reduce real discretionary domestic outlays by 13 percent. Mr. Bush would no more try to do that than he would dance in Swan Lake.

Republicans justify their support for tax cuts by saying they hope to hold down federal spending by depriving the government of money - "starving the beast," as they put it. But there is no reason to think it will work. What we have learned is that federal spending rises when we have a surplus and rises when we have a deficit. The beast always eats. It will eat well again next year.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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