Questions, no answers from Bush budget plan

Spending: Maybe the country needs a massive military buildup, but president hasn't made the case.

February 07, 2002

THERE WAS A TIME, not too long ago, when Democrats in this country were routinely labeled members of the "tax and spend" party, and sometimes rightly so.

It was not generally meant as a compliment.

President Bush, in his proposed budget for fiscal 2003, has done the Democratic Party one better: not taxing, still spending. On Monday the president unveiled a $2.13 trillion budget plan that calls for a 14 percent increase in defense spending, an $80 billion deficit in the first year alone and hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts.

After four years of balanced federal budgets, it is disheartening enough to see the country sliding precipitously into the kind of deficit spending that had come to characterize the budget in the latter part of the 20th century. If it must be done, so be it, but so far the president has not made a compelling argument.

Instead, members of this administration have turned the Sept. 11 attack on America into a catch-all excuse for whatever policy agenda they wish to pursue. What's more, they have attempted to use Sept. 11 as a subtle tool for stifling dissent, as if any questioning of the administration's policies were tantamount to a failure of patriotic resolve.

The president perpetuated this party-line patriotism in a speech touting his new defense budget requests at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on Monday.

"We're unified in Washington on winning this war," he said. "One way to express our unity is for Congress to ... fully fund my request."

Members of Congress, of course, will not fall for such cheap rhetoric, and that's a good thing.

Does this mean the president's request for a $48 billion increase in defense spending is uncalled for? Or that doubling the amount allocated for homeland security, from $19.5 billion to $37.7 billion, is out of line?

Not necessarily.

But patriotic fervor and high ratings in the polls do not relieve the president of the obligation to explain to Congress and the American people where these figures come from and why they are necessary. This is especially true given the myriad domestic programs -- not to mention the people they serve -- that will go wanting as a result.

In President Bush's impressive State of the Union speech, which he used to set the table for his budget proposal, he mentioned, almost as if in passing, thousands of terrorists roaming the world, like ticking time bombs. Only two days before he delivered the speech, though, the figure had been 100,000. It was "downsized" in the final version. So about how many time bombs are out there, and how do we know?

He upped the military ante considerably in that speech by invoking the image of our enemies from World War II: the "evil axis." This time, to the surprise of many, the axis is made up of Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The implication was that the United States must be militarily ready to fight this newly named evil should it become necessary.

But what is the likelihood of that? And how will the weapons needed for that defense (or would it be offense?) be different from those needed for fighting terrorism at home and abroad? And is that why it's all costing so much?

Nobody wants to fight a war on the cheap. And that's not what we're suggesting. But, as we keep hearing, this is not a war like any other. So do we need to fund it as if it were, and then some?

When a president is talking about this level of spending, war or no war, the country deserves to know what it's getting. And "security," wrapped in the flag, isn't a good enough answer, especially when it means rolling back social programs, raiding the supposedly sacrosanct Social Security "surplus" for the next decade and potentially costing taxpayers billions of dollars in interest on debt over the next decade.

And when those questions are answered, here's one more: Does it make sense to cut taxes during a war? Does it make sense to cut taxes when a nation is being called upon to sacrifice? Does it make sense to cut taxes when by doing so we are saddling ourselves and our children with an uncertain economic future at best?

What false economy it would be for the nation to spend as if we were in a war and tax as if we were enjoying a prosperous peace.

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