We have a saying around these parts: if you are going to come late, don’t come at all. After months of standing behind a Republican-controlled Congress that has given us record deficits, President Bush has finally expressed his desire to cut spending. While this is a step in the right direction, it can only be described as too little, too late.
Bush’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2006 tops out at a whopping $2.57 trillion, with a deficit projection of $390 billion. Neither of these estimates take into account a Social Security overhaul or spending in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All told, the amount of taxpayer money the federal government will spend is enough to make even Bill Gates cry.
Despite this, the proposal has come under fire, not for being too costly but for not being costly enough. It features deep cuts in environmental protection, agriculture and housing and urban development.
While one might expect that Democrats would be peeved by cuts to these big government programs, key Republicans have shown their true colors by griping as well. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga) is miffed at cuts to farm subsidies and House leaders have indicated they will work up a proposal of their own (translation: they aim to spend more). So much for “the party of fiscal responsibility.”
The flaws of the Bush budget extend far beyond how much is spent and how much is cut. Where the money goes or doesn’t go is an issue of some contention as well.
Fiscal experts as diverse as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and the Cato Institute’s Stephen Slivinski are in agreement that the domestic spending cuts make up a relatively small portion of the total budget. Small as they may be, those cuts are likely to affect people who rely on agencies whose budgets are slashed.
Still, it can be argued that these cuts are necessary to reduce waste and fight pork barrel spending. But if that is the case, this philosophy should be spread across the governmental spectrum.
Spending on defense, homeland security and foreign aid is expected to increase substantially, with few objections to how the money is being spent.
It isn’t difficult to see what is going on here – Bush is attempting to replace bloated, ineffective social welfare with bloated, ineffective military welfare that is far more expensive than its domestic counterpart.
Rather than making a serious effort to reign in spending, he is sticking a Band-Aid on the problem while letting the wound fester beneath it.
Asserting true fiscal responsibility requires looking beyond pet programs and political ideology and addressing cold, hard costs. While he is hardly alone in his inadequacy, this has been something Bush has been loath to do.
His faith-based initiatives, for instance, eat up more than $1.17 billion. In lieu of curing poverty, they transform religious institutions into pressure groups that ask for more federal spending. Subsidizing religion is not a legitimate function of our government nor should it become one.
Ending the war on drugs would also contribute greatly to deficit relief. Like Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the War on Drugs has been a costly failure. Upwards of $11.2 billion a year is spent on what is essentially a health issue. Decriminalization of controlled substances would eliminate the costs of investigating, incarcerating and treating drug users.
Of course, it would bring about inane grumbling about “moral decay” from the Religious Right, but since when is their seal of approval worth $11 billion?
Cutting defense spending, while necessary, presents a greater challenge in the sense that no one wants to leave soldiers unprotected in times of war.
A lot of money earmarked for defense, however, does not go to protecting our soldiers. It goes to building shipyards for ships the Department of Defense never even requested – a half-a-billion-dollar expenditure, courtesy of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss) and his buddies in the shipping industry. It goes to building a multibillion dollar National Missile Defense system that many scientists are convinced won’t even work.
It goes to fulfilling handshake deals with shady contractors and capitalizing on American fears to turn “security” into a cash cow.
Scaling back farm subsidies, one of the budget proposal’s few strengths, is likewise an unpopular measure.
Inevitably, it beckons the image of a poor farmer struggling to make ends meet. Poor farmers, however, are not the ones who benefit most from farm subsidies.
Instead, subsidies are granted to large agribusiness firms that help keep poor farmers poor and consumer prices high. The government should stop doling out millions to these pig-raising pigs and force them to compete on the open market.
These cuts can save billions of dollars a year and put us on the path to a balanced budget. But because Republicans lack the temerity to stand up to self-serving moralists and deep-pocketed lobbyists, they are unlikely to see the light of day.
Whereas Democrats are at least open in their support of big government, Republicans will protest it while simultaneously doing everything they can to enable it. As the Bush budget proposal goes to show, the statist, spendaholic G.O.P. is as soft as the cotton it subsidizes.