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Bush's Budget Buster

Matt Lewis & Adam Hughes

The debate over Iraq has overshadowed an important, and bitter, budget fight brewing between Congress and the president, who has threatened to veto a host of modest, responsible congressional spending proposals. With the battle lines drawn, Congress can make clear with whom they stand: an out-of-touch president and a bankrupt ideology, or the best interests of the American public.This battle centers around the rather conciliatory budget the new Democratic majority put together. They would nearly meet the president's request for enormous increases in defense and homeland security spending and propose small increases in social spending.

But the president has chosen confrontation. He says he will veto all spending bills that exceed his requests and an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), while opposing improvements in the federal student loan program-all in the name of restraining government. Bush has adopted the abstraction that government should have a reduced role in public affairs-warning that the all-too-modest spending plans will unleash tax increases and the federal leviathan.

But the president's position is misleading and out of touch with the American public. First, there is no substance to his attacks on the size of the congressional spending proposals. Congress's fiscal 2008 spending plan exceeds the president's budget slightly regarding social spending-a mere $23 billion-or less than one percent of the entire budget. This difference between their budget and the president's will not open the spending floodgates.

Indeed, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found the congressional plan would actually reduce the size of social spending as a share of the economy. It is more appropriate to think of the Bush budget as proposing cuts, and the congressional budget as ensuring that program services are not cut. As for the new health and education spending-currently between about $50 and $70 billion-it will be spread out over five years, and some of it will be offset by spending cuts. The rest of the new spending will be paid for with additional taxes, but since the increase is moderate, it will have little impact on most taxpayers' bottom line.

Not spending this money, on the other hand, could have a significant impact on individuals, because budgets matter. As the nation has seen after Hurricane Katrina, the Walter Reed scandal, and most recently in failures at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, you get what you pay for when critical federal programs are cut. Smaller government is not necessarily better, and often leaves us all staggeringly vulnerable.

But to the president, led astray by anti-government ideology, smaller is better, even if it means crumbling infrastructure, uninsured children, or students forgoing college because they can't make ends meet. Anti-government ideology is being exposed for the fraud it is, but the president is undaunted.

Moreover, the president has no fiscal responsibility credentials. His policies have racked up $3 trillion in new debt. His annual budget projections significantly overestimate the deficit at the beginning of the year, which allows him to claim his policies have decreased the deficit at year's end. Why should anyone believe his budget requests are responsible?

Bush has even nominated former House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, as the next Office of Management and Budget director. Half the time he was Budget Committee chairman, Nussle couldn't even pass a budget -and he played a key role in approving the president's policies that ran up the debt, mostly to pay for tax cuts for the very wealthy. With Nussle at the helm of OMB, Bush's fiscal policy loses even more credibility.

Despite the president's fiscal shortcomings, 147 House Republicans earlier this year pledged to sustain his vetoes of appropriations bills-almost three-fourths of the Republican caucus, including its leadership. They chose loyalty to the president and a failed ideology over the American people.

But that was then. Now, many members who signed this pledge have been voting in favor of appropriations bills that exceed the president's request. Furthermore, Bush has received little support in the Senate in opposing the SCHIP expansion. The Senate Finance Committee approved a program expansion on a 17 to 4 vote. Key Senate Republicans Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah helped write the draft that was approved.

As Republicans begin abandoning ship, will others in the party follow? Will Congress hold firm on its commitment to stand up for the right priorities? Or will it back down to the conservative ideologues? Now is a chance for it to prove itself and what it stands for. The majority can-and must-win this fight.

Matt Lewis is a federal fiscal policy analyst at OMB Watch, a Washington-based nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog organization. Adam Hughes is the organization's Director of Federal Fiscal Policy.

© 2007

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