THE WAR IN IRAQ might not be going quite as smoothly as the Bush administration hoped, but the war at home is going just swimmingly. War is silencing debate not just on the wisdom of Bush's foreign policy but on a host of other issues that would normally be front-page news.
You might have missed it, but this is budget season. Thanks to the distractions of war, bizarre budget resolutions are swiftly moving through Congress and will be law by mid-April. For the first time ever in the United States, we are rushing through an immense tax cut in the midst of a war that the president admits will cost at least $74.7 billion just in its first phase. The consequence of this, not surprisingly, is massive cuts in popular outlays.
The budget enacted by the Republican House on a straight-line party vote (with just 12 GOP dissenters) is astonishing. It not only gives Bush his entire tax cut but proposes to balance the budget within six years. The casualties of that process would be monumentally unpopular if the public were not distracted by war.
For starters, the House Republicans are cutting, of all things, veterans benefits. The message, evidently, is God bless our troops when they are dodging bullets but God help them when they come home.
Once, a grateful nation offered vets free medical care. Now, the Republicans want to charge premiums to ''well-to-do'' vets -- with well-to-do defined as earning $26,000 a year. All told, the House budget cuts an amazing $14.6 billion in vets' programs, including money for disabilities caused by war wounds, rehabilitation and health care, pensions for low income veterans, education and housing benefits, and even -- nice touch -- burial benefits.
After World War II, we welcomed back vets with a huge program of education, health, and housing -- the justly celebrated GI Bill of Rights. This time, returning military personnel will not only face cuts in their own benefits as veterans; their kids will face cuts in education and health aid as well.
One of Bush's signature programs was ''No Child Left Behind.'' The House Republican budget cuts education funding by 10.2 percent below the reduced level proposed by President Bush, which had proposed to cut several billion previously approved by Congress.
The Bush administration claims that the war is being fought to make sure weapons of mass destruction will not rain down on Americans. Incredibly, the Republicans are shortchanging the Nunn-Lugar program, the bipartisan effort to dismantle the nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union. Which is the bigger threat: Russia's thousand of loose nukes or Saddam's hypothetical ones?
There's more: $93 billion in Medicaid cuts; a skimpy prescription drug program financed by other massive cuts in Medicare; huge environmental cuts.
As astonishing as the slap to veterans is a slight cut in real outlays for homeland security -- at a time when threats will increase. There is no new money for port security. Even the administration's ''first-responder'' initiative comes from cuts in other law enforcement aid.
Though the war serves as a handy distraction, these budget assaults are not mainly the result of war. Mainly they go to pay for the cost of tax cuts. The final cost of the war, occupation, and rebuilding may reach $200 billion. The cost of the two Bush tax cuts is over $3 trillion. (In a preliminary vote, the Senate voted yesterday to trim Bush's latest tax cut by $350 billion, but this still would have to be reconciled with the House.)
This administration's slogan might as well be, ''Sacrifice is for suckers.'' While young men and women risk their lives in a war whose rationale remains to be proven, the larger Bush program diverts money from services to ordinary Americans, even our homeland security -- to give tax breaks to multimillionaires.
Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney's former company, Halliburton, stands to make a pile of money as a military contractor in Iraq, while Richard Perle, one of the architects of the Iraq war, is to receive $725,000 as a consultant to a telecom company seeking regulatory approval from the Pentagon.
War is never good for democratic deliberation. That's why it's so good for this administration, whose policies would otherwise not withstand public scrutiny.
One final issue lost in the fog of war is the effort by tax reformers to close the loophole that allows unpatriotic US companies to move to offshore tax havens. The IRS puts the cost to the US Treasury at around $70 billion a year -- about the direct cost of the Iraq war. It's an instructive contrast: ordinary American soldiers slogging through the sands of Iraq while Bush's corporate cronies relax on a sandy, tax-free beach.
Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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