- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Numbers reign supreme in the halls of Congress over the next few weeks as lawmakers dissect the president’s budget and construct a fiscal blueprint of their own. This week alone there are 19 separate hearings on Capitol Hillabout various aspects of the president’s budget. Yet, while February and March promise spirited dialogue on the deficit, taxes and spending priorities, there is another element obviously missing — specific, comprehensive alternatives on both sides of the debate.

President Bush submitted a detailed Fiscal 2005 budget, and congressional Republicans will unveil their specific plans in the next couple of weeks. And while the Democrats in Congress, as well as that party’s presidential hopefuls, offer bold complaints, they suffer from “alternative anemia” when it comes to their own budget blueprint.

If rhetoric were revenue, the Democrats could balance the budget. But their lack of specifics creates a candor deficit, which should not go unchallenged.

Heading into this budget season, several questions deserve attention as lawmakers debate fiscal priorities. First, consider taxes. The White House proposed and Congress passed three tax cuts in the three years Mr. Bush has been in office. Republicans argue these tax cuts spurred an economy hobbled by a recession that began in the last year of the Clinton administration and then was shocked by terrorists and wars. The economy’s recovery over the past 18 months — including last week’s continued good news on unemployment — has been impressive, while not perfect.

Republicans argue the tax cuts were “the right policy at the right time.” Many economists agree. So a fair question for the Democrats is: “What could have been done to spur better growth over the past 18 months?” Repeal the Bush tax cuts seems to be a common mantra. Okay. But do what instead? Raise taxes on the rich? That’s about as specific as they get. Further, not many economists would agree that raising taxes on wealthy Americans alone would have led this nation out of recession.

Another key to truth in budgeting requires asking which specific tax cuts the Democrats want to repeal. At the end of this year, for example, four provisions that were either accelerated or expanded in last year’s tax bill are set to expire. These four items affected the Alternative Minimum Tax, the Child Care Credit, the Marriage Penalty and a bracket lowering expansion for lower income tax payers. If these items expire, a typical family of four making $40,000 will face a $915 tax increase next year. Do the Democrats want to let these provisions expire and impose a tax increase?

To his credit, presidential contender Sen. John Kerry says he opposes repealing these tax cuts because they would raise taxes on the middle class. But then he goes on to say he favors even more tax cuts for the middle class, tax breaks for new energy technologies (do they employ lobbyists?) and steps taken to end teacher lay offs (we know they employ lobbyists). And then, hold on to your hats, Mr. Kerry opens the Kimono a little and gives us some real specifics on his Web site from the heart of his economic plan: “He will fight his heart out to bring back three million jobs ? he will restore technology and stop teacher lay offs.”

Get out the sharp pencils everyone; it’s time to take notes.

Finally, what about spending? We hear a lot of rhetoric about the “massive deficits,” but where do Democrats want to shave spending? Slash defense or homeland security? Do they want to cut Medicare? Last year many voted against the bill because it failed to spend enough. More telling, Democrats offered (and Republicans defeated) nearly 50 specific spending amendments in last year’s appropriation bills that would have added nearly $88 billion in just one year and $1.3 trillion over 10 years. It’s one thing to politicize the deficit and complain — but where are the specific plans?

Over the next several weeks, several groups will come forward with specific budgets. The so-called Blue Dog House Democrats will have a blueprint and so will the Republicans in the House and Senate. But Nancy Pelosi of California, on behalf of all House Democrats, and Sen. Daschle for the Senate Democrats, will complain, criticize and try to strategically amend the budget blueprint with politically embarrassing amendments. The Democratic presidential contenders will join the chorus of complainers with a host of objections and criticisms. And so it goes with the politics of opposition.

Neitherthepresident’s budget nor the Republican blueprints are immune from media scrutiny and political criticism. Yet those who criticize should face a simple test. What would you do instead and where is your comprehensive plan? Only then can voters make rational evaluations and judgments.

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