- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

President Bush’s 2005 budget — featuring a $2.4 trillion price tag atop 2004’s $521 billion deficit — deserves one-and-a-half cheers.

It generously funds government’s fundamental duties and courageously terminates various others. However, it leaves unchallenged the endlessly expanding entitlements set to asphyxiate this economy.

Mr. Bush’s budget increases defense by 7 percent and homeland security by 10 percent. Despite inevitable inefficiencies, much of this is vital — at least until the president plants Osama bin Laden’s head on a spike and sends his Islamofascist pals the way of the Barbary Pirates.

Remarkably, domestic discretionary spending inches ahead only 0.5 percent after barreling forward an inflation-adjusted average of 5 percent each of the last three years. Better yet, 65 federal programs are slated for elimination. While these deletions trim just $4.9 billion, they point expenditures the right way: Down. As one White House aide told me, these “are programs in search of work rather than programs that finish their work and go out of business.” These savings include:

• $9 million from the Education Department’s Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners plan to unite “Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and children and families of Massachusetts.”

• $18 million from Health and Human Service’s National Youth Sports program.

• $171 million from the Commerce Department’s Advanced Technology Program to support high-risk industrial innovations.

• $247 million from Education’s Even Start family literacy effort. A White House budget document explains: “Children and adults participating in Even Start generally did not make literacy gains that were greater than those of nonparticipants.”

c $297 million from Justice’s State Criminal Alien Assistance Program “because it cannot demonstrate any impact on crime.”

Unfortunately, these programs have beneficiaries, lobbyists and lawmakers who adore them. Can Mr. Bush withstand the ear-ripping howls these folks will aim his way? He can foil them by proving he has felt the heat from fiscal conservatives and sees the light on federal profligacy.

John Berthoud of the National Taxpayers Union applauds the manicure the president has arranged for the Leviathan, but he prescribes major surgery. The administration, he says, is “only talking to conservatives about holding nonentitlement, nondefense, non-Homeland Security spending to 0.5 percent growth. That’s fine. But it’s only 18 percent of the budget. Unfortunately, taxpayers are on the hook for 100 percent of what Washington spends, so fiscal conservatives can’t ignore the other 82 percent of the budget that the administration wants to ignore.”

To this end, President Bush should do at least three things.

(1) Whip out his favorite pen, wave it at the White House press corps, and wield it repeatedly to veto every excess perpetrated by the fiscally incontinent Republican Congress. Alas, like a movie star giving autographs, Mr. Bush has signed everything Congress has handed him so far.

(2) The extravagant Medicare drug benefit has exploded 33 percent since Mr. Bush approved it Dec. 8, from $400 billion to $534 billion. (Whether leading Republicans concealed this bill’s true cost from Congress to secure its adoption urgently merits investigation.) This $140 billion foul-up presents Mr. Bush a golden opportunity to ask Congress to limit this program to needy seniors without prescription coverage rather than extend it to anyone over 65, regardless of income or insurance.

(3) Mr. Bush should urge Congress to adopt a constitutional amendment to prevent nondefense spending from outrunning inflation plus population growth. Such a legal chastity belt has left Colorado taxpayers relatively unmolested and could offer Americans some relief from grabby Washington politicians.

Absent such major savings initiatives, Democrats and Republicans alike will consume tax dollars and crowd out necessary reforms such as personal Social Security accounts and permanent status for President Bush’s tax cuts. By 2014, some 23 million Americans (up from 2 million today), can expect to suffer the costly and complex Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). Overheated spending has pushed this problem’s solution off the stove.

“Two to three years ago, lots of folks were saying we would shortly fix AMT,” the National Taxpayers Union’s John Berthoud recalls. “Nobody’s saying that now.”

Mr. Bush’s core supporters want him to practice fiscal restraint. They love it when he cuts taxes and kills terrorists, but hate it when he plays trusty bartender to the spendaholics of Capitol Hill.

Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.

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