Cheap talk

September 22, 2005

When President Bush proclaimed last week that the prospect of sudden new expenses of up to $200 billion for the Katrina cleanup means "we're going to have to cut unnecessary spending," even he knew that was an empty threat.

No matter how extravagant, wasteful or silly much federal spending appears, all of it is considered necessary by somebody in Congress. Mr. Bush has had almost no success over the past five years in resisting this pork barrel practice.

He was simply trying to divert attention from his own pet spending: the $1.35 trillion in tax cuts during his first months in office before the huge budget surplus everybody expected failed to materialize. With most of the cuts going to the very wealthy, they, too, make a tempting target.

The smartest approach to injecting some balance in a budget already wildly out of whack before Hurricane Katrina would be a combination of the two: trimming the least-defensible spending while rolling back some of the tax cuts.

A band of House conservatives produced yesterday a list of potential cuts that could save nearly $200 billion over five years. There was a clear ideological tilt to their choices - Medicaid, Medicare, foreign aid, student aid and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

But the package also included novel and useful ideas for eliminating subsidies to the energy and agricultural industries, and for more rational spending on defense and homeland security.

As for tax cuts, Congress should forget about extending a break on capital gains and dividend income and repealing the estate tax. Furthermore, rescinding tax breaks exclusively for the 1 percent of Americans with incomes of $300,000 or more could produce $250 billion over five years.

Katrina isn't likely to place anywhere near as great a strain on the budget as the war in Iraq or Mr. Bush's tax cuts. The storm has momentarily sparked a serious debate about the deficit, but history suggests nothing will come of it. Passions will cool and a Congress focused on elections won't be in a mood to do much.

It's up to voters - who will be stuck with the tab - to keep the pressure on.

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