Bush, Kerry and their deficit deceits

August 20, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- The budget surplus is gone, federal spending is out of control, and the government is swimming in debt. But, to coin a phrase, help is on the way. George W. Bush and John Kerry both promise that in the next four years, they will cut this year's $445 billion federal budget deficit in half.

To which serious students of the budget reply: Big, fat, hairy deal. The vow is only slightly more risky than promising that four years from now, everyone will be four years older. All the next president needs to do to cut the deficit in half, you see, is ... nothing. Leave existing laws and policies in place, without changing a thing, and the deficit would dwindle to a mere $228 billion.

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush, to be fair, do not propose to do nothing. They have all sorts of plans to shower citizens with new spending programs and tax cuts, even though we can't pay for the ones we've got. But they insist they can hand out these goodies while making big advances against the deficit -- Mr. Bush by cracking down on new spending, Mr. Kerry by repealing tax cuts for the rich.

To assume they'll actually attack the deficit requires a suspension of disbelief. The Mr. Bush who says he'll hold down domestic outlays, after all, is the same Mr. Bush who has never vetoed a spending bill, or any other bill -- the first president with that dubious distinction since James A. Garfield, who had the excuse of being mortally wounded by an assassin after only four months in office.

It's also the same Mr. Bush who has been happy to lay out funds for the invasion of Iraq, Medicare prescription drug coverage and the most extravagant farm bill ever. Under his stewardship, notes the Cato Institute, domestic nondefense discretionary spending has risen by 5.8 percent per year (above inflation). That's more than triple the rate of growth under Bill Clinton. Expecting Mr. Bush to cut or even contain spending is like expecting the pope to endorse polygamy.

Mr. Kerry is more believable only because he doesn't even feign interest in spending discipline. The National Taxpayers Union Foundation estimates that all his promises would raise annual federal outlays by $226 billion a year.

Some of this would be paid for by repealing some of the Bush tax cuts, but much of it would come from piling up debt for our children and grandchildren. The anti-deficit Concord Coalition figures that based on their promises, either Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry would enlarge the projected deficit over the next 10 years by about $1.3 trillion.

Even their meager promise to halve the deficit rests on the sort of accounting that got Enron in trouble. Mr. Bush's blueprint doesn't include the $50 billion he plans to request for the occupation of Iraq over the next year -- and it assumes we won't spend anything in Iraq after that. Mr. Kerry, in a show of bipartisanship, makes the same convenient but ridiculous assumption.

The truth is we'll be burning cash in Iraq for a long time. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expects American troops to remain there for five more years.

Nor does either candidate figure in the cost of reforming the alternative minimum tax. It was designed to make sure a few wealthy taxpayers don't escape paying federal income taxes, but because it's not indexed for inflation, it now threatens to snare one out of every five taxpayers in a large and unintended tax increase.

The prevailing assumption is that Congress and the president will have to take action to limit the impact of the alternative minimum tax or face mobs of citizens carrying lengths of rope. But fixing the problem is expected to cost about $500 billion in revenue over the next decade -- adding to the deficit.

It's hard to believe that in 2001 the federal government was not only living within its means but paying down the national debt. For four consecutive years, starting in 1998, it ran a budget surplus. That was one of the greatest achievements of the 1990s, one shared by a Democratic president and a Republican Congress.

Yet today, it has the quality of a lovely dream that evaporates as soon as you wake up. In this campaign, despite a growing economy, neither candidate even pretends to be trying to balance the budget. Here's a question both should have to answer: Three years ago, we had a surplus. Why are you against bringing it back?

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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