Bush’s budget different from actual Fed budget
Published: Monday, February 7th, 2005
Monday’s unveiling of the president’s $2.57 trillion budget was the official kickoff of the federal fiscal cycle, which begins each year with this solemn bit of Kabuki theater before rapidly descending into farce. Few Americans have the time or inclination to actually read the budget. But even those who just read news reports about it need to keep the following in mind. First, it’s important not to confuse President Bush’s budget with the actual federal budget. The two have about as much in common as a cat has with a catamaran. Presentation of the president’s budget is an elaborate but largely irrelevant Washington ritual, since Congress, which holds the purse strings, routinely declares the White House’s fiscal blueprint DOA (dead on arrival) and goes blithely about its business. Perhaps nowhere is the sausage-making metaphor more apt than in federal budgeting: Whatever the president feeds into the legislative meat grinder this week will be unrecognizable by the end of the year, after Congress does its handiwork. It’s easy, therefore, for the White House to put all kinds of provocative proposals in its budget, and for the president to strike the pose of a fiscal hatchet man, while knowing in advance these ideas don’t stand a snowball’s chance in Congress. Of the 150 programs Bush targets for elimination, for instance, few will actually get the ax once Congress comes to their rescue. We’re not saying it’s strictly an exercise in cynicism. But is there a strong element of political calculation involved in what the White House is proposing? Of course. It’s probably best, therefore, to think of the budget as a political rather than fiscal document; as a broad statement of administration principles and priorities, more of symbolic importance than anything else. A budget also can be used by the chief executive to draw lines in the sand, daring Congress to step over. But those lines mean little unless the president is prepared to defend them with his veto pen or bully pulpit. And this president, at least in his first term, has been conspicuous in his refusal to do this. So we take the many “cuts” being proposed with a grain or two of salt. We’ll believe them when we see them. This or any other Washington budget is hard to take seriously for other reasons. The first is the capital city’s odd definition of the word “cut.” Inside the Beltway, a cut rarely means a reduction in program funding. More often it means a slowing in the projected or desired rate of spending growth, or the difference between what Congress appropriated in fiscal 2005 — as part of the usual year-end spending frenzy — and what the administration wants to spend in fiscal 2006. The Balkanization of the federal budget also seems designed to mislead, or at least disorient, the public. It used to be that the budget was the budget. Then, at some point, it was split between “discretionary” and “nondiscretionary” (or “entitlement”) spending. That left an increasingly large slice of the budget pie on untouchable autopilot, and a steadily smaller slice under congressional control. Since Sept. 11, 2001, we’ve seen the pie sliced yet again, with the emergence of another budget category called “nondefense, nonhomeland security discretionary spending.” This places virtually all security-related spending in the untouchable category, leaving even less of the federal budget within congressional control. That allows the Bush administration to claim credit for an across-the-board, 1 percent reduction in spending — at least in nondefense, nonhomeland security discretionary spending. But because that’s a relatively small slice of the pie, the overall budget the White House proposes still will grow by 2.3 percent next year. This fulfills the president’s pledge to hold the growth of federal spending to the rate of inflation, but doesn’t include whatever supplemental spending is needed for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or any upfront costs associated with Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security, assuming Congress goes along. For small-government conservatives and libertarians, the president’s “cuts” seem paltry, and his budget is a disappointment. But at times like these, when neither major political party talks seriously about rolling back big government, it’s probably the best that can be expected.
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