President Bush said yesterday he will reduce excessive spending by the federal government to return $1.6 trillion in overpaid taxes to Americans because “our country can afford it.”
“There is a choice we have to make: Once we meet priorities, do we increase the size of the government or do we increase the amount of money in the pockets of the people who are working for a living?
“We thought long and hard about the right number. This is a well-planned-out tax-relief package that addresses the concerns of working Americans. It is needed. It is necessary. It’ll make a very positive difference in the lives of people who pay taxes. And our country can afford it.”
In a hastily called press conference in the White House briefing room the president’s first, announced just an hour before he appeared Mr. Bush said the federal government can slash tax rates across the board without slashing federal programs.
“Accounting in Washington is a little different than the way normal I shouldn’t say ‘normal’ people the average person accounts,” he said to laughter. “This is a town where if you don’t increase the budget by an expected number, it’s considered a cut.
“We’re going to slow the rate of growth of the budget down,” he said. “My budget is going to say loud and clear that the rate of growth of the budget for example, from last year was excessive.”
The president’s reference to creative accounting in Washington recalled the “Medi-scare” campaign during the 1996 election cycle. Democrats who were then calling for a 7.1 percent increase in Medicare denounced as “cuts” a Republican plan to boost spending for the program by “only” 4.6 percent, more than twice the rate of inflation. Mr. Bush’s foe in the presidential election, Al Gore, reprised the issue during campaign stops in Florida.
Throughout the 35-minute press conference yesterday, Mr. Bush appeared relaxed and in control, at one point chastising an aggressive reporter.
“It’s not your turn, but go ahead,” Mr. Bush said to stifled laughter from the press corps.
The question-and-answer session covered topics from sanctions on Iraq to FBI spies to the scandal over Bill Clinton’s presidential pardons. But Mr. Bush repeatedly returned to his tax-cut plan and the federal budget he will submit to Congress on Tuesday, saying skeptics can expect him to defend his proposal mightily.
“I’m not willing to admit defeat right here before I’ve begun to fight or persuade let me put it to you that way.”
He also said his priorities can be met if excessive spending is eliminated, pledging to spend 60 percent of the expected $5.6 trillion surplus over the next 10 years to reduce debt and pay for the programs he called “the nation’s priorities.”
“I have a reasonable and balanced budget. It meets growing needs with a responsible rate of increase in spending. It funds priorities, and my administration has no higher priority than education. Our budget will honor commitments of America’s senior citizens. Social Security and Medicare funds will be protected for Social Security and Medicare.”
While he released few specifics about his upcoming budget proposal, Mr. Bush announced the fiscal 2002 plan will include an additional $21 billion for Medicare, a 10 percent increase.
On his tax-cut proposal which would reduce all tax rates by 3 percentage points to 6.6 percentage points and return an average family of four $1,600 after it is phased in Mr. Bush said he is worried “about a bloated federal government serving as a drag on economic growth.”
“It’s also necessary because these are uncertain times; increasing layoffs, growing consumer debt, lower consumer confidence. And lower taxes will help our economy,” he said.
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan endorsed Mr. Bush’s economic program last month, saying tax cuts are needed to prevent Congress from spending the burgeoning budget surpluses and to provide “insurance” against recession.
Mr. Bush said he wants his proposal neither increased nor decreased.
“I’m going to resist the ‘Christmas tree’ effect of tax policy. I don’t want people putting ornaments on my plan… . I will resist the temptation by folks to pile on their pet projects onto our tax cut.”
He also said he thinks projections that show a $5.6 trillion surplus in incoming cash over the next 10 years increased several times over the last few years by the Congressional Budget Office because of rising economic indicators are too cautious.
“I believe we can do a heck of a lot better in growing our economy than the basic assumptions in the 10-year plan. I believe that good monetary policy, good fiscal policy, good regulatory policy, good trade policy will enable our economy to grow beyond the scope that is envisioned in the current budget projections.”
Mr. Bush’s surprise press conference led some in the media to speculate that he was seeking to push Mr. Clinton and his numerous scandals from the front pages. But Mr. Bush dodged questions on the ex-president, falling back on his stock answer that “our White House is moving forward,” not looking back.
But if getting on top of the news cycle was his motive, Mr. Bush failed. Minutes after the network and cable news shows analyzed the president’s words, they returned to the Clinton pardon story.
Mr. Bush ran his first press conference with a firm hand, at one point dousing doyenne Helen Thomas’ exuberance to force an answer from the president.
When she interrupted Mr. Bush’s answer to her question of why he “refuse[s] to respect the wall between church and state” by creating a White House office for faith-based organizations, the president said firmly: “I didn’t get to finish my answer, in all due respect.”
Mr. Bush often punctuated his answers with humor. “I think Mr. Greenspan, not to put words in his mouth, but it seems like why don’t I just put some words in his mouth,” he said to laughter before restating the Fed chairman’s stance on his tax-cut plan.
To a persistent British reporter who hoped to get an early read on today’s Camp David meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair, he said: “I understand, you’re trying to get me to tell you the answer twice… . I promise to call upon you tomorrow.”
At the end of the press conference, reporters asked if Mr. Bush could make the sessions weekly.
“Oh, you don’t want to see me once a week. You’ll run out of questions.”
“Maybe twice,” one reporter yelled out.
“Oh, twice. I’ll be running out of ties,” the president shot back.