- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2001

The strongest argument for President Bush's plan to use some of the nearly $6 trillion in budget surpluses to cut taxes by $1.6 trillion over 10 years is that if we don't, Congress will spend it for you.

That is what has been happening over the past three years as tax surpluses have mushroomed. They could reach a stunning $10 trillion by the end of the decade. And as the surpluses have been rolling into the U.S. Treasury, Congress has been on a spending binge squandering the taxes paid by hard-working Americans on every half-baked, pork-barrel, giveaway spending program they can find to feather their political nests back home.

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The scandalous result: Discretionary federal spending has skyrocketed by nearly 20 percent in three years, an average of about 6 percent a year twice the yearly rate of inflation.

When Mr. Bush's top number crunchers at the Office of Management and Budget looked at the spending statistics and extrapolated what they would add up to over the next 10 years, the computers spewed out a shocking $600 billion-plus price tag. The big spenders in Congress are spending as if there were no tomorrow.

What Mr. Bush's 2002 budget proposes to do is to significantly slow discretionary federal spending increases to about 4 percent a year, or just above the expected annual 3 percent inflation rate. That will leave maneuvering room in the budget to shift funding to more pressing priorities modest spending increases in education and defense; a doubling of medical research grants at the National Institutes of Health; and tax cuts to get the nation's economy investing, working and growing again.

Bigger reforms, such as personal Social Security retirement accounts, are being put off for now while a presidential commission forges a consensus behind the idea. That strategy will let the administration concentrate all of its attention on enacting its pro-growth tax cut.

"That is the key to everything, economically and politically," a Bush adviser told me. "Without a strong, growing economy, we will not have the anticipated surpluses, and we will not have the political support from the country over the longer term for the rest of our agenda."

Mr. Bush's strategy on the budget is a smart one: to avoid most of the program-by-program budgetary battles that have paralyzed past administrations. Instead, he is calling for a slowdown in the rate of spending increases and focusing on just a few big ideas, among them tax cuts, education and defense. Keep the message simple. Emphasize the idea of letting people keep more of the money they earn. And let the Democrats foolishly make their class-warfare arguments, which most Americans no longer buy in the age of the New Economy.

But there is something else going on here, too. It's a major change in the way some conservatives think about budget issues.

After decades of battling the budget wars, many conservatives are looking at the budget in a new way. They are focusing more on cutting the flow of tax revenue to Washington and less on fighting individual programs and bureaucracies.

Mr. Bush did not crusade against government, as Ronald Reagan did to a large degree in 1980 by proposing the abolition of agencies and departments. Instead, he chose to focus on a slightly different and more effective strategy: Concentrate, as Mr. Reagan did, too, on restraining the future growth of government by cutting the amount of future tax revenue flowing to the U.S. Treasury.

Martin Anderson, who was Mr. Reagan's domestic policy adviser, thinks that fighting for deeper cuts or the elimination of smaller programs that have strong constituencies is not worth doing right now.

"You are not going to save large amounts of money," Mr. Anderson told me. "You need to focus on the tax cuts, where the big money is, if you want to reduce the growth of the government. Look at the Reagan model. He went after the tax cuts.

"Bush is trying to do four big things that he said he would do in his campaign: Rebuild the military, reform Social Security and Medicare, cut income tax rates and restrain spending, and reform education."

"If someone comes in and says to Bush that we need to spend a lot of time cutting the National Endowment for the Arts, the time he would spend doing that would only come at the expense of his other priorities," Mr. Anderson said.

This doesn't mean that Mitch Daniels, Mr. Bush's budget director, has thrown in the towel on eliminating wasteful spending. He has focused on cutting corporate welfare, which is liberally sprinkled throughout the budget.

There is plenty of corporate welfare to cut. Take, for example, the richly subsidized loans made by the Export-Import Bank, which help line the pockets of the biggest Fortune 500 companies. And the Agriculture Department's Market Access Program has dished out hundreds of millions of dollars to help big businesses such as the Gallo winery and Tyson's Foods promote their products abroad.

In other words, a lot of nonessential programs will be shrunk under Mr. Bush's overall 4 percent spending ceiling. That will be bad news for the bureaucrats who run the programs, and good news for beleaguered taxpayers.

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