Bush's budget -- good, the bad, the ugly

Discretionary cuts: Programs that help cities and poor don't fare well in president's focused plan.

April 15, 2001

THERE'S NOT MUCH compassion in this conservative president's first budget, unveiled last week.

It's a disciplined attempt to whittle down discretionary domestic spending while putting the fiscal emphasis on programs that align with George W. Bush's limited agenda.

More money to enhance the teaching of reading in schools gets a thumbs up. Environmental protection gets a thumbs down. Biomedical research wins big. Alternative energy research loses big.

Additional police officers on the streets? Not from this president. Bill Clinton's program found no support in the Bush White House. But a proposal to fight gun violence did.

Let's face facts: This president wants to shrink government's reach, not expand it. His $1.6 trillion tax cut over 10 years seeks to achieve that objective. If enacted, it means less federal revenue to support government activities. Something's got to give. And it won't be military spending.

Mr. Bush never has been a city boy. He's got little sympathy for the multiple, complex problems tearing as the fabric of America's urban core. His budget reflects that lack of understanding.

Mass transit construction -- so vital to making cities livable -- was slashed dramatically. Money to police public housing as a way of attacking the drug problem was cut. Retraining of dislocated workers was reduced.

Mr. Bush did devote $900 million -- a nearly three-fold increase -- to improved reading in schools, and money to develop reading and math tests. This is a worthy campaign priority, and he delivered in his first budget.

Missing from the president's spending plan were funds for a missile-defense system. But when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld finishes his in-house assessment of America's future strategic military needs, there could be a large budget add-on. Democrats estimate this military buildup could cost $400 billion over 10 years.

Some of the president's reductions would be counterproductive. Take the 50 percent cutbacks in spending for alternative energy research -- wind, solar and hydroelectric power. Solar power already is far cheaper than buying power on the spot market in California. Any attempt to solve this country's energy problems must include a heavy emphasis on renewable power.

The reduction in law-enforcement funds is another troubling move. You can't fight crime effectively unless cities have the wherewithal to put more police officers on the street right away.

This is a very business-like budget. No harsh conservative rhetoric a la Newt Gingrich or Ronald Reagan. No attempts to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts or Amtrak.

This administration needs to limit spending increases to 4 percent to make room for that massive tax cut.

To do that, two-thirds of federal departments were given smaller budget allocations. Other agencies didn't get enough of an increase to offset inflation.

It's doubtful, though, that Mr. Bush can make these spending cuts stick. Even Republicans in Congress want more money for domestic programs popular in their home districts. California's large delegation, for instance, likely would insist on more, not less, energy funding to help ease that state's power crisis.

Maryland's delegation will work hard to reverse a 10-percent cut in federal dollars to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Yet even Mr. Bush's tightly limited spending program may run into trouble later this summer, once revised revenue forecasts are released. The current economic slowdown could erase earlier estimates of vast federal surpluses.

That, in turn, could throw into doubt the affordability of the Bush tax-cut plan. The only alternative would be further deep slashes in domestic programs.

As a dedicated conservative, Mr. Bush believes in smaller government. His first budget reflects that philosophy.

So far, though, there's no indication Congress or the public shares his sentiments. He may have to modify his tax and spending plans substantially to gain consensus.

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