The sorry fiscal record of a
David S. Broder / Syndicated columnist
February 27, 2005
WASHINGTON — Back-to-back briefings last week put a harsh
spotlight on the deep hole left by the budget policies of George Bush's
first term. Millions of Americans will be paying the price for the
fiscal profligacy of this misnamed conservative government.
The bad news, delivered in the first report, is that the
camouflaged domestic spending cuts contained in the Bush budget will —
if accepted by Congress — do serious damage to education initiatives,
low-income assistance and environmental programs over the next five
The worse news, documented in the second report, is that these
cuts will not even begin to deal with the looming calamity of runaway
entitlement spending on the retirement and health-care costs of the
You won't find either of these warnings spelled out in the
budget message of the president. An analysis by the liberal Center on
Budget and Policy Priorities noted that for the first time since at
least 1989, the White House Office of Management and Budget failed to
give Congress or the news media information on the proposed spending on
most domestic programs beyond the coming year.
These "domestic discretionary" programs — covering all the
routine functions of government, except for defense, homeland security
and international affairs, and the entitlement programs like Social
Security, Medicaid and Medicare — span the gamut from national parks to
They are financed by annual appropriations from Congress. Bush
gave detailed directions on how he wants $18 billion saved on these
programs next year, but then urged Congress to impose spending caps for
the next five years that would reduce spending in these areas by $214
billion total — without spelling out any of the specific cuts. (Savings
in all cases are measured against the fiscal 2005 spending on these
programs, adjusted only for inflation.)
By studying the spending caps Bush proposed for the 57 broad
functions included in the domestic discretionary budget, the center's
experts calculated how much would have to come out of individual
programs — assuming Congress accepts Bush's priorities.
The results are startling. Elementary and secondary education
programs, including the president's No Child Left Behind initiative,
would be cut by $11.5 billion over the next five years to stay within
the caps, with the 2010 year alone seeing a 12-percent reduction from
inflation-adjusted 2005 levels.
The WIC program, which subsidizes the diets of low-income
pregnant women and nursing mothers — a major preventive measure against
low-weight babies — would be cut by $658 million, enough to reduce
coverage in 2010 by 660,000 women. Head Start funds would be reduced
$3.3 billion over five years, with 118,000 fewer youngsters enrolled in
Clean-water and clean-air funding would decline by $6.4 billion
over five years, a 20-percent cut in 2010. Community-development
programs used by cities to build up impoverished neighborhoods would
lose $9.2 billion in five years, a 36-percent cut in 2010.
Most of these cuts would come out of state and local budgets,
adding to the burdens their taxpayers would have to take up if services
are to be maintained.
As Bob Greenstein, the center's director, commented, cuts of
this magnitude would be bitterly contested if Congress had to justify
them to the people who care about each of these programs. But by asking
instead for a vote this year on enforceable five-year caps on these
broad categories of spending, the administration hopes to accomplish
its goals without arousing the same degree of controversy.
The irony is that even if all this were done, the biggest budget
problem would still remain. Medicare and Social Security benefits for
the huge demographic wave of boomers, who start to turn 62 in just
three years, make the current budget policies "unsustainable" for the
long-term. That was the word used repeatedly at a briefing by David
Walker, the head of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office,
Congress' watchdog agency, and others.
Reform of these major entitlement programs is the pressing need
to avoid a budget train wreck in the next generation, but Bush has
offered little leadership on that. His Social Security plan — for
individual savings accounts — does nothing to address the shortfall in
that system. And his "contribution" to solving the more pressing crisis
in Medicare has been to add an unaffordable prescription-drug benefit
to the program.
It is a sorry record for a conservative administration, and we
are just beginning to recognize its price.
David S. Broder's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The
Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org