Missing the mark

February 06, 2007

A glass-half-full optimist could find in the budget President Bush presented yesterday some potential for compromise with the Democratic-led Congress.

Mr. Bush has acknowledged the need to expand access to health care, particularly for children of the working poor; to demand a greater contribution to government by those most able to make it; to reduce greenhouse emissions through programs to combat traffic congestion; to more accurately reflect the costs of the Iraq war in the context of the federal budget; and to provide a sizable cash infusion to the chronically underfinanced national parks

But while he was aimed in the right direction, Mr. Bush's proposals generally missed the mark. He wants to protect tax cuts for the rich while raising fees on the middle class in a budget that can't meet its claim to reach balance in five years because it fails to include near-certain expenses, such as the cost of correcting the alternative minimum tax, and assumes tax revenues will grow at an unusually robust 7 percent. Still, there's plenty the two sides should be talking about.

A proposal to expand health coverage through tax deductions won't work for those who make too little to pay taxes. But expanding Medicaid to include more of the working poor is popular both on Capitol Hill and at the state level, including in Maryland. The goal could be achieved in part through an existing program, aimed at children in low-income families, that Mr. Bush proposed to continue - though without nearly enough money to pay for the three-fourths of eligible children who are not enrolled.

Mr. Bush proposed to make his tax cuts permanent, including breaks on income and estate tax levies for the very wealthy. And he would not reduce a Medicare subsidy for private insurance plans. Mr. Bush showed he was not averse, though, to putting a greater burden on upper-income Medicare beneficiaries, who already pay higher premiums for physician services than those less well-off. He would fix the income levels at $80,000 a year for singles and $160,000 for couples so an ever-larger group would be paying the higher premiums.

The president's plan to help local governments reduce traffic congestion by imposing tolls that rise during rush hours would be more impressive if it were accompanied by money for mass transit alternatives. And Mr. Bush's Iraq-driven Pentagon spending - now one-fifth of the total budget - drops drastically at the end of his administration, though no one considers that likely.

On a brighter note, national parks look like they might get a long-overdue sprucing up in recognition of their popularity even in a very difficult budget year. Maybe that's a good place to start on building a consensus.

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