Extra fuzzy math

February 03, 2004

WHILE PRESIDENT Bush is looking into why he got bum intelligence on Iraq, he should check out his sources of fiscal advice as well. From the budget he submitted to Congress yesterday, it appears the president is being scandalously misinformed.

He said yesterday that he was looking forward to working with appropriators in Congress to reduce the $521 billion budget deficit by half in five years. But somebody must be pulling his leg.

Mr. Bush's proposal is crafted to find these enormous savings entirely within a category that makes up only one-fifth of the total budget. He says that could be achieved by restraining growth in the domestic social programs included in that category to 1 percent this year.

But even a total freeze in that category this year would save only $3 billion. As C. W. Bill Young, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said of the Bush budget: "The numbers simply do not add up."

Political calculations behind Mr. Bush's budget proposal are equally flawed. In an election year, he's expecting members of Congress to make painful trims in the sort of bread-and-butter programs most noticed by their constituents.

He attacks the one section of the budget - not counting defense and homeland security - over which lawmakers have direct control. And he suggests things such as eliminating a preschool literacy program, cutting reimbursements to states for incarcerating illegal aliens, and reducing aid for first responders - police, firefighters, etc.

And even if they made such cuts, it would hardly make any difference in the deficit.

What is the president not being told?

That automatic spending on so-called entitlements such as health care, transportation and agriculture consumes nearly 60 percent of the budget and is driving much of its growth? This year's highway bill alone is projected to grow 13 percent over six years as Mr. Bush proposed it, and 72 percent - for a grand total of $375 billion - as shaped by a House committee.

That Mr. Bush's tax cuts make it impossible to keep pace with a budget that also calls for a 7 percent increase in defense spending - not counting the $60 billion or so for Iraq and Afghanistan? Congress could save nearly $150 billion over five years by simply refusing Mr. Bush's request to extend tax cuts on dividends, capital gains, the child tax credit and reduction of the marriage penalty, which are scheduled to expire this year.

That it's not possible to maintain $1 trillion in tax cuts, lavish spending on new weapons systems and close the deficit gap - even if non-defense, non-automatic domestic spending is zeroed out?

A compelling argument can be made for shutting off the reckless gush of federal spending. But President Bush is focused on the equivalent of a leaky faucet.

Heads should roll.

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