Unity bites dust with busted budget

February 06, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Whether it's at your own kitchen table or Uncle Sam's, it's a good bet that peace and harmony will go out the window when the bills come in.

Now that President Bush has produced the hard numbers of his budget for the next fiscal year, the mild Democratic responses that met his cheerleading State of the Union commitments to win the war on terrorism and keep the home fires burning have already been drowned out by irate partisan complaints about domestic cuts.

The numbers confirm that his $2.13 trillion spending plan hugely boosting military and homeland security outlays will put the federal government $106 billion in the red, even with deep cuts in a range of domestic programs and dipping into Social Security and Medicare money, supposedly held sacrosanct by both parties.

The president dusted off his budget before a friendly military crowd at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, calling it "a plan to fight a war we did not seek," and informing the men and women in uniform of a pay raise tucked in for them. As in his State of the Union message, it is evident that he intends to wrap his budget in the flag while trying to push through the domestic cutbacks and inadequate responses to domestic needs that he was shortchanging long before Sept. 11.

With his popularity going through the roof, he may well pull it off. Who can argue against spending whatever it takes to win the war and keep us safe at home? Under the circumstances, the Democrats are hard-pressed to arouse public opinion over the vanishing surplus built up during their White House tenure, and the role played in its disappearance by Mr. Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut passed last year.

So they are reaching for the Enron scandal as a lifeline. The Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Kent Conrad, greeted the budget numbers by saying, "Enron got into trouble because they didn't fully disclose debt they have, and that is precisely what the federal government is doing."

Nobody is accusing the president of unloading millions of dollars of Uncle Sam's treasure for his own ends, as is the case with top Enron officials. But Mr. Conrad contends that the costs of the war on terrorism and security at home are being blamed for the deficit, when Mr. Bush's tax cut is just as much the culprit.

Lost in all this is Mr. Bush's original argument for his tax cut during the days of surplus, which was simply that the money belonged to the taxpayers, and since it wasn't needed, it should be given back to them. The arrival of recession changed that rationale into the need for the tax cut as an economic stimulus. With the budget in the red now, you can't say the money being given back -- mostly to the well-off -- isn't needed.

President Bush thinks so little of running an unbalanced budget -- once the most serious of Republican sins -- that he wants last year's cut over 10 years to be made permanent. It's shades of Ronald Reagan, who also preached the Republican religion of fiscal responsibility while cutting taxes, tolerating unbalanced budgets and ballooning the federal deficit and the national debt to astronomical dimensions.

Mr. Reagan, in his day, blamed the Red Peril to justify his huge military buildup while hacking away at despised social welfare programs for the lazy and derelict.

Mr. Bush blames Osama bin Laden, and siphons off money from programs such as job training, public housing and hospital aid to pursue him and his ilk. Meanwhile, the president offers up half-a-loaf responses to pressing public needs such as providing adequate prescription drug benefits for the elderly and shoring up Social Security and Medicare.

It's not true, however, that Mr. Bush is just counting on cuts in social programs to pay for the military buildup and more homefront security. He says he could raise a bundle by leasing oil drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, if only those bleeding-heart environmentalists and animal lovers would stop their whining.

But they won't, nor will the Democrats hesitate to demand more spending for their pet projects now that the budget is being busted. You can look, therefore, for a free-for-all on the domestic agenda, even as support for the war and homeland security remains strong, as it obviously should.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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