- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2001

It's been said about Congress that there are really three political parties on Capitol Hill: Republicans, Democrats and appropriators. President Bush is going to discover the truth of that maxim in coming months when he tries to sell his budget plan to Congress. David Stockman, President Reagan's first budget director, noted in his book "The Triumph of Politics" that the biggest adversaries to fiscal conservatism were often pork-barreling congressional Republicans.

The good news is that the budget that Mr. Bush has unveiled this week is a pleasant surprise. It's relatively tightfisted, capping federal domestic spending growth at below 4 percent for 2002. That's still too much, but it's a big improvement over the 6 percent rate of growth of spending in the last few Clinton years. Mr. Bush's budget also smartly leaves plenty of room for the $1.6 trillion tax cut, and it even reserves an additional $1 trillion for the Bush campaign proposal of allowing about 15 percent of workers' payroll tax dollars to be placed in personal retirement accounts.

In many ways, this is the most Reaganesque budget submitted by a president since the Gipper's last one submitted to Congress back in January 1989. The Bush plan offers more dollars for defense and unfortunately a preposterously large 9 percent bulge in the education budget, but all other domestic programs are held at or below the inflation rate. (The cardinals on the appropriations committee are already grousing, which is a good sign.) If Mr. Bush has his way, over the next five years, federal spending will fall below 18 percent of national output for the first time in 40 years. Budget Director Mitchell Daniels deserves high praise for this impressive blueprint for the new administration.

The Bush plan can now be conveniently juxtaposed alongside the more pro-spending congressional Democrat alternative. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota recently endorsed a scheme calling for a third of the budget surplus to go to new domestic federal spending. That's $1 trillion more spending on top of the $1 trillion increase in expenditures already built into the budget base line over the next decade. Ergo, Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Daschle desire $2 trillion in new spending through 2011. That's more than the entire net income of every resident of Ohio, Michigan and Illinois put together. The Democratic plan reinforces the validity of Mr. Bush's warning that if the taxes aren't cut, the money will be eagerly spent.

Alas, the Bush budget has two severe defects. First, it doesn't eliminate any ineffective or outdated federal programs. There are no programs zeroed out in this document, which is unforgivable given that there are thousands of programs crammed in the budget and hundreds of them no longer serve any public purpose. Any budget termination list should include the National Endowment for the Arts, the Legal Services Corporation, wool and mohair subsidies, Department of Commerce grants to Fortune 500 companies, the Export Import Bank and… . . Well, you get the picture.

All of this is to say that the Bush administration needs to hold up a few scalps at the end of the year to prove that Republicans in control of government are capable of ending programs, not just starting new ones. There's no reason that federal agencies should be endowed with the gift of eternal life.

The other defect of this budget document is the record-setting expansion for the Department of Education. Yes, this is the same agency Newt Gingrich and his colleagues six years ago correctly called for abolishing. Now Mr. Bush is boasting that the $40 billion he wants to spend on the Education Department would be "the biggest increase in the Department of Education budget" since it was created by Jimmy Carter as a sop to the teachers unions back in 1978. There's no way to sugar coat the lunacy of the Bush education plan: These extra federal dollars spent on school programs will be a colossal waste of money. And in fact, most Republicans who will vote for Mr. Bush's new federal education initiatives know full well that this money will do virtually zilch to improve our neighborhood schools. For 20 years, more federal education dollars have been associated with worse school performance. The Education Department doesn't deserve more money, it deserves a wrecking ball.

But on balance, Mr. Bush has now written a commendable budget. Enforcing it will be a much bigger challenge. Mr. Bush may be forced to demonstrate his commitment to fiscal fitness by vetoing congressional spending bills even if they're primarily sponsored by Republicans whenever those budget bills exceed his budget requests. After the past few years of a continuous spending spree on Capitol Hill, the Republicans need to reestablish their anti-big government credentials, and the White House will ultimately have to play the role of fiscal enforcer.

That won't be easy. Mr. Bush promises to hold the line on spending in precisely the areas where Congress has in recent years fattened federal appropriations. Since 1996, federal domestic discretionary spending the area of the budget where the lowest priority programs ranging from Energy Department initiatives to the Legal Services Corporation to corporate welfare grants are storehoused has surged by more than 20 percent. Last year, domestic appropriations bills were padded with some $30 billion in added expenditures in the last days of the congressional session. That extra spending over 10 years reduced the expected surplus available for tax cuts by some $250 billion. That would have been enough money to "pay for" the entire and immediate repeal of the death tax.

Mr. Bush's plan is an economic policy trifecta for conservatives. It constrains spending, funds a $1.6 trillion tax cut and reserves funds for private Social Security accounts. These are budget priorities worth fighting for. Whether Mr. Bush does or not will in large part determine the success or failure of his presidency.

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