How will we pay for Republicans' spending spree?

September 28, 2005|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- For those Americans who hate sending money to the Internal Revenue Service, here's the good news: President Bush says he is not going to raise taxes to pay for the costs of Hurricane Katrina.

And here's the bad news: He's already raised them.

That happened the day he signed a bill laying out $51.8 billion to help the victims of the storm, on top of the $10.5 billion previously approved. It would be nice if the federal government could spend more than $62 billion - not to mention the additional $140 billion that Katrina might eventually cost - without putting a burden on the taxpaying public. It would also be nice if a jolly fat man in a red suit would come down your chimney every Christmas Eve to give you presents. But neither is more than a pleasant fantasy.

The dismal fact is that every dollar the government spends has to come from someone, and that someone is us. Sooner or later, the entire budget has to be financed by the citizenry. If we don't pay for Katrina in taxes today, we will pay for it in taxes tomorrow.

By refusing to impose higher taxes on today's Americans, Mr. Bush is not sparing us the cost of Katrina - he's only postponing it. He is probably also creating a burden bigger than it would be if we paid for it now. As anyone with a credit card knows, it's a lot less painful to charge a purchase than to surrender hard-earned cash from your wallet. So the temptation is to spend more than you otherwise would.

That same impulse is at work here. Congress would be far more careful in making new outlays if it knew voters would have to come up with the money before the next election.

There is an alternative to using higher taxes, now or later, to cover hurricane-related expenditures: cutting other federal programs. That's what some House Republicans say they want to do. Last week, they unveiled a package of cuts, dubbed "Operation Offset," to delete $70 billion in spending from next year's budget.

But the problems with this approach are obvious.

The first is that these cuts wouldn't cover the anticipated costs of Katrina alone, even before we get the tab for Rita.

The second is that they are not going to be approved. Many of the changes have been proposed and rejected in the past, and most House members would sooner remove their own kidneys without anesthesia than take goodies away from their constituents.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert immediately spurned the big-ticket items in the package, which include repealing $24 billion in highway projects and saving $31 billion by delaying the Medicare prescription drug benefit. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay sees little room to cut the budget: "After 11 years of Republican majority, we've pared it down pretty good."

But if Mr. DeLay is a budget-cutter, I'm Chris Rock. Since January 2001, congressional Republicans have declined every invitation to practice frugality. During Mr. Bush's presidency, federal outlays have risen by 33 percent, a growth rate that surpasses every president since Lyndon B. Johnson, who, if memory serves, was once reviled by Republicans as a big spender.

Iraq and homeland security have consumed a lot of dollars, but we can't blame Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein for everything. As Cato Institute budget analyst Stephen Slivinski notes, outlays have risen across the board under Mr. Bush. "There's been no drop in any broad category," he says.

This year, Mr. Bush submitted a budget that Republicans praised, and Democrats denounced, as miserly - because it featured controversial reductions in more than 150 programs. What many people overlooked is that the administration plan boosted total spending more than needed to keep up with inflation.

And those 150 cuts? They mostly went nowhere, as everyone knew they would. In fact, Congress decided to spend even more than the president wanted. Before Katrina, the 2006 budget was set to be 5.7 percent higher than this year's. After Katrina, the sky's the limit.

Mr. Bush and Congress would like us to believe that we can fight a war, protect against terrorism and repair the damage done by natural disasters while continuing to enjoy low taxes. The reality is that, though we might not get all the government we pay for, we will pay for all the government we get.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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