- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2002

For the first time since 1994, when Republicans took control of both chambers of Congress, Senate Democrats will take the lead in producing their chamber's budget resolution. They will be led by Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, who has spent the past several years whining about Republican-crafted budget resolutions and opposing Republican-endorsed tax relief. Now that he finally has the gavel in his own hands, it will be Mr. Conrad's responsibility to pass a resolution that doesn't raid his sacrosanct Social Security Trust Fund. Fat chance. Like so many of his Democratic colleagues, who bitterly complain about the Bush tax cut (except, of course, the 12 Senate Democrats who voted for it), Mr. Conrad does not have the courage of his convictions, and the budget resolution he oversees will be proof of that.

The House, meanwhile, remains in Republican hands and, in a party-line vote, the House Budget Committee last week passed a budget resolution that closely tracked President Bush's February budget proposal. The whole House is expected to take up the measure today. Total federal spending will be $2.1 trillion. Roughly a third of that represents discretionary spending, which is subject to Congress' annual appropriations process. The balance of spending relates to mandatory programs, such as Social Security, and interest on the national debt. Thus, the biggest battles will involve discretionary spending.

For the first time since 1996, budget authority for discretionary defense spending will exceed domestic discretionary spending, which seems fitting for a wartime economy. In fact, budget authority for military spending in 2003, according to the blueprint passed by the House panel, will increase by $45.1 billion. That hardly seems extreme, given the decade-long assault on the defense budget. Also, homeland-security spending will nearly double, reaching $37.7 billion. With spending priorities necessarily focused on winning the war against terrorism and protecting the homeland, and with Democrats ostensibly obsessed with fiscal discipline, the remaining portion of the discretionary pie devoted to non-defense spending must play a secondary role. To this end, the House panel's resolution provides for a $4.6 billion increase. That will require appropriators to make choices, hardly too much to ask during wartime though, of course, that remains to be seen. With the economy recovering from recession, the deficit under the House plan would be $45.6 billion.

Mr. Conrad's budget dilemma is more challenging than the one facing the House Republicans, who also pledged to provide $350 billion over 10 years to reform Medicare, including adding a prescription drug benefit. That was nearly double the $190 billion proposed by the president. Many Democrats, however, would prefer to spend $750 billion over 10 years on this effort. Meanwhile, most Senate Democrats, while accusing the Bush administration of running the nation into a "fiscal ditch," do not have the courage to cancel yet-to-be-implemented tax reductions, which, of course, would amount to passing legislation increasing taxes. Mr. Conrad has said, "[T]his is a time to make choices." Now that he wields the gavel, let him proceed.


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