- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2003

Under President Bush, the federal budget has been driven deep into the red, thanks to generous spending, successive tax cuts, the war and a momentarily slowing economy. Now there are the first signs the record deficits might become a political issue for Mr. Bush.

No problem, the president said this past week. “Josh Bolton laid out a plan that will shrink the deficit in half in a five-year period,” he said, pushing the issue off on the White House budget director.

The White House goal of halving the deficit is more wish than plan. First, it depends on, as a previous president might have said, what the administration means by “half.”

This year’s deficit is estimated at $500 billion, or 4.4 percent of GDP. To the public — and to most students of the federal budget — “half” would be cutting the deficit to $250 billion, still one of the largest on record.

But the administration, although it says it won’t do so, might try to claim success if the deficit is reduced to 2.2 percent of GDP, or $320 billion.

Achieving either goal would take an improbable combination of a booming economy, steely fiscal discipline by Congress and the White House, and a sizable reduction in the costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. To cut the deficit further, Mr. Bush would have to forgo some of his tax cuts and allow others to expire.

According to estimates developed by the Senate Republican leadership, if Congress and the White House continue spending as they have been — 7 percent annual increases since 1998 — the 2009 deficit will be $666 billion. If by some miracle the spending could be held to the rate of inflation over those five years, the deficit would still be $432 billion.

One outside analyst — Goldman, Sachs — says it will probably be around $525 billion.

Politically, voters don’t get worked up over the deficit. And, as a practical matter, even if Mr. Bush wins a second term, what happens in 2009 is his successor’s problem, not his. And by then it could indeed be a grave problem.

Addressing the deficit is only a preliminary skirmish in the much larger battle over how to finance the retirement and medical bills of the soaring number of elderly Americans, including 76 million Baby Boomers. That’s a problem that can’t so easily be handed off to the budget director.

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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