- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2004

With some congressional conservatives in open revolt against the Bush administration’s heretofore failure to staunch the explosion of discretionary spending, the White House finally established some long-overdue guidelines. Those limits will apply to the administration’s fiscal 2005 budget, which will be issued Monday. Specifically, President Bush has pledged to hold the growth rate of discretionary spending unrelated to national defense and homeland security to less than 1 percent in 2005. It’s about time. A recent report by the Cato Institute — “The Republican Spending Explosion” — reveals that nondefense discretionary outlays will increase by about 31 percent during Mr. Bush’s first three years in office.

To be fair, the explosion of domestic discretionary spending initially erupted under Bill Clinton amid the revenue deluge of the late 1990s. However, Republicans have controlled both the executive branch and both bodies of Congress throughout the fiscal 2004 appropriations process, which finally ended with the belated passage of the overgrown omnibus spending bill.

The ostensibly conservative budget policy-makers in the White House and Republican-dominated Congress have not been establishing and following prudent spending priorities. For example, the Cato study found that over the last 40 years only the Johnson administration’s budgets for the Vietnam-escalation years of 1966 and 1967 increased inflation-adjusted (i.e., real) discretionary outlays by higher percentages than the three budget years (2002, 2003 and 2004) of the current Bush administration. By contrast, Cato reported, at the height of the Cold War, “President Reagan boosted [real] defense outlays by 19.2 percent in the first three years of his term, but he also cut real nondefense outlays by 13.5 percent.”

The Bush administration claims that much of the increase in nondefense outlays has gone to homeland-security improvements. That is true up to a point. But in 2002, the historic, subsidy-reducing “Freedom to Farm” legislation, which the GOP-controlled Congress passed in 1996, was replaced by a subsidy-raising farm bill that increased taxpayer transfers to the largest cotton and grain growers. This year, Congress is already poised to test the president’s week-old pledge to keep the increase in 2005 nondefense and non-homeland security discretionary spending below 1 percent. Compared to a Bush proposal last year to authorize $247 billion in highway and mass-transit spending over the next six years, the House is advocating $375 billion and the Senate seeks $311 billion. In this atmosphere, unless the president immediately begins to use the bully pulpit to waive his veto pen, which he still has never used, the fiscal 2005 budget process will likely make the 2004 deficit look like an exercise in tight fiscal government.

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