Sunday, February 06, 2005

Lose-Lose Budget

When discussing Bush's state of the union speech, I argued that Bush was making mutually exclusive claims about the budget. He essentially promised to
a) spend more money on a variety of pet programs b) make his old tax cuts permanent c) give new tax cuts (you and I both know that's what it means to "simplify" the tax code to Republicans) and d) halve the deficit.

Clearly, it's impossible to do all of these, even though Bush promised to cut or eliminate 150 federal programs.

Well, now Bush's budget is out, and outlines the cuts. Are they in Corporate Welfare for Big Business? Nope. Perhaps they close tax loopholes for the ultra-rich? Dream on. Is it in reducing spending for local police departments to upgrade technology and communication equipment? You better believe it.

A brief array of the programs being cut include the following:
Bush would slice a $600 million grant program for local police agencies to $60 million next year. Grants to local firefighters, for which Congress provided $715 million this year, would fall to $500 million.

He would eliminate the $300 million the government gives to states for incarcerating illegal aliens who commit crimes. It's a proposal he has made in the past and one that Congress has ignored. Also gone would be assistance for police departments to improve technology and their ability to communicate with other agencies.

The Environmental Protection Agency's $8.1 billion would drop by $450 million, or about 6 percent, with most of the reductions coming in water programs and projects won by lawmakers for their home districts.

The Bureau of Indians Affairs would be sliced by $100 million to $2.2 billion. The reduction would come almost entirely from the agency's effort to build more schools.

The $2.2 billion program that provides low-income people -- in large part the elderly -- with home-heating aid would be cut to $2 billion. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said the reduction would be "wrong-headed an inappropriate," especially with this season's jump in oil prices.

Now, there are two possible end-results that occur from this budget. The first is that it passes as written. That might reduce the deficit, although it probably won't since it doesn't include the several trillion dollars in borrowing we'd need to take in order to fund his Social Security privatization scheme (or further Iraq/Afghanistan funding, for that matter). The second is that the programs will prove too popular to cut (you try telling constituents that you voted to eliminate funding for the local police), and we'll have our usual irresponsibile budget that we have every year. Both of these outcomes are bad in their own ways.

The latter scenario is bad for the obvious reason: It does nothing to solve the deficit. The former, by contrast, might (again, emphasis added on "might") help reduce the deficit. But it does so on the backs of the poor. That isn't just irresponsible, it's immoral. I support balanced budgets, but not at any cost. And when Bush decides that the way to balance the budget is to let poor people freeze to death in the winter (see budget cut item 5), I must respectfully part ways. Closing tax loopholes, repealing some of the upper-income tax cuts, and reducing corporate welfare are vastly superior ways of cutting the deficit than Bush's Soak the Poor strategy.

The subsidiary question is: Which one of these is more likely. On the one hand, as I've said, these programs are popular. Given Congress' inevitable tendancy to spend more, it will be very difficult to keep these items out of the final budget. And Bush has a very bad track record when it comes to the most powerful tool he has in imposing fiscal restraint on congress: the Veto. He's never used it once in his entire time in office. All of this would suggest scenario #1 is the more likely option. However, on the other side, the one area of Congress where these draconian cuts would find vocal support is on the far Conservative Right--in other words, the House Leadership. One can never underestimate the power Tom DeLay has over his caucus. He might just be able to pull of the upset here (though it would still face the uphill struggle of getting through the Senate).

Now, more than ever, is the time for Congress to show some spine. We cannot restore fiscal sanity in America without some hard decisions. Some of Bush's tax cuts just have to go, and it will be up to independent Republicans of conscience to make it so.

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