- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

President Bush is calling for significant new spending increases next year, despite a looming $500 billion deficit, but has said little about curbing expenditures elsewhere in the budget.

This has triggered criticism from his staunchest conservative supporters, who accuse him of being a “big government Republican” unwilling to spend any of his political capital to fight wasteful, pork-barrel spending.

Mr. Bush has recently been outlining his election-year spending plans, some of which he mentioned in last Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Others will be spelled out in greater detail in his upcoming budget proposals for fiscal 2005.

In his almost hourlong address to Congress, Mr. Bush uttered only one brief sentence about controlling the growth in federal spending: “This will require that Congress focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending, and be wise with the people’s money.”

Yet the president said nothing about the massive omnibus spending bill that was pending in the Senate, which is needed to fund the government for the rest of this year — a spending monstrosity with some $20 billion in earmarked, unrequested pork he is prepared to sign.

But Mr. Bush had a lot to say in his address and in other speeches about where he wants to increase spending. For example, much more spending for the Education Department, a corporate welfare fund for manufacturers, a 5 percent raise in NASA’s space budget, $250 million more in job-retraining money — on top of the billions already being spent.

Couple this with the huge Medicare prescription drug program he signed last year, the biggest federal entitlement expansion since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society spending binge in the mid-1960s.

What his conservative critics want to know is when Mr. Bush will offset this new spending with corresponding cuts in marginal, low-priority spending elsewhere in the budget.

“Thus far, the president has had a lot of specific proposals of where to increase spending, but he has been vague on where to cut spending,” says budget analyst Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation. “He has specified increases for education, job training, Medicare, homeland security and corporate welfare, but we’ve only heard vague statements about fiscal responsibility on the spending-cut side.”

Most grating of all, say conservative supporters, is Mr. Bush’s reluctance to veto any spending measures, like the omnibus appropriations bill that is loaded with hundreds of questionable projects that even White House officials say are wasteful.

But this same bill also contains money for the FBI’s anti-terrorism program, the Department of Homeland Security and most of the rest of the government — spending Mr. Bush said is critical to the nation’s security and welfare. As for the pork, well, Republicans slipped a lot of it into the bill so they can boast about bringing home the bacon at re-election time.

But what about Mr. Bush’s promise to hold the line on spending? “A year ago at this time the president talked about 4 percent spending growth, and we’re about to finish this fiscal year with 9 percent spending growth once the omnibus spending bill passes,” Mr. Riedl told me.

To begin with, the bulk of Mr. Bush’s discretionary spending increases have been for defense, homeland security programs, the two back-to-back wars to topple terrorist regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq and other national security needs.

Mr. Riedl concedes that when all national security-related programs are excluded from the total spending increases, nondefense discretionary spending that has to be appropriated each year is close to Mr. Bush’s 4 percent ceiling.

A Wall Street Journal editorial last week compared Mr. Bush’s spending increases to Bill Clinton’s in the 1990s, noting that Mr. Clinton’s domestic discretionary spending rose by no more than 2 percent a year. But Mr. Clinton achieved big-budget savings by slashing defense spending, while Mr. Bush has had to sharply increase the defense budget to fight the war on terrorism and protect the country from the al Qaeda fanatics.

At the same time, let’s not forget Mr. Bush’s $1.7 trillion in tax cuts, money that would have been spent if he had not been able to get Congress to send this money back to the people and businesses who earned it. That is a huge pre-emptive budget cut, too.

In the end, though, Mr. Bush will nuke this spending controversy when his 2005 budget comes out on Feb. 2, because it will propose holding total nondefense, non-homeland security discretionary spending increases to less than 1 percent — a surprise move he did not mention in his State of the Union address.

Will Mr. Bush’s other domestic spending increases alienate conservative voters in November? That’s doubtful, because he is following in Ronald Reagan’s fiscal footsteps. Mr. Reagan, too, slashed taxes, sharply boosted defense spending and saw total federal spending rise from $600 billion to $1 trillion by the end of his presidency, amid soaring deficits.

Democrats denounced the tax cuts and the deficits, but Mr. Reagan won re-election in a 49-state landslide in 1984 and left office four years later at the height of his popularity and with a booming economy.

With the economy currently exploding at a 7.2 percent growth rate in the third quarter, boosting tax revenues that will cut the deficit, this year is beginning to look a lot like 1984 all over again.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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