- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 13, 2005

The annual fight over national budget priorities began last week, though it seemed somehow strangely muted compared to the previous fire-and-brimstone battles.

This is not to say President Bush’s proposed $2.5 trillion budget for fiscal 2006 (starting Oct. 1) didn’t draw much criticism from innumerable special interests who will fight to preserve and protect their pet programs, no matter how insignificant, ineffective, wasteful, redundant or unaffordable.

But Mr. Bush’s budget seemed to quickly dissipate into a 24-hour story overwhelmed by competing issues on Congress’ agenda — from Social Security, the 800-pound gorilla of issues, to class-action legal reform to the costs of war in Iraq.

Maybe it has to do with the macro-numbers, which have grown so large they have become incomprehensible to most. Millions we understand, maybe billions. But trillions gets into a level of multiple zeroes that numbs the mind and clouds the issue.

It doesn’t seem so long ago Jimmy Carter was proposing a $600 billion budget that then seemed huge, only for that number rise to $1 trillion in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, largely due to the massive Reagan effort to defeat the Evil Empire, cheap at twice the price. Now we are at more than $2.5 trillion, and will be skirting $3 trillion before this decade ends.

Much of the political budget battle involves the deficits and the debt, or at least that’s what Bush budget-cut critics say. However, public worry about the economic fallout from rising debt seems to have dropped among voter priorities, easing the political effect of Mr. Bush’s record deficits. A January Pew poll had reducing the budget deficit in ninth place as a priority, after the economy, terrorism, Social Security, education, jobs, Medicare, health insurance and help for the needy.

Concern about defense, homeland security and defeating terrorism in its breeding grounds (a major factor in the budget’s growth) has, to some degree, mitigated concern over large deficits and the budget’s growth. We are at war, and wars cost a lot of money. An $80 billion supplemental request for Afghanistan and Iraq, submitted outside the budget, soon will arrive on Congress’ doorstep and will pass overwhelmingly.

But Mr. Bush’s conservative allies, who have stuck by him through thick and thin, say he has all too often pushed big government initiatives that sharply increased domestic spending — from agricultural subsidies to a massive boost in Medicare for prescription drug benefits for the elderly.

In response to these and other complaints, Mr. Bush’s fiscal 2006 budget plan is the toughest of his presidency. It has about 150 program terminations, block grant consolidations and cutbacks and, overall, virtually would freeze nondefense, non-homeland security and nonentitlement discretionary spending in an effort to cut this year’s record $427 billion budget deficit in half over five years.

The list of cuts runs the gamut from The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, notorious for providing bike paths, yacht harbors and water slide parks in rich communities, and fat subsidies to agribusinesses that have enjoyed rising farm prices through most of Mr. Bush’s first term.

Oddly, budget-cutters were still trying to get the list of programs Mr. Bush would eliminate or curb. But, as this was written, that list was not forthcoming. Mr. Reagan’s hard-charging budget director, David Stockman, not only put out a list right away, but it came with voluminous, waste-filled facts about why each line item should be axed.

Most major departments and agencies would see budget cuts, though not the Defense Department, which would get a $19 billion raise, to a $419 billion budget.

But the rise in entitlement spending, which remains on automatic pilot, is still going through the roof, and that, for the most part, is why spending is out of control.

Medicare, for example, remains one of the fastest-growing expenditures in Mr. Bush’s budget, rising $50 billion in ‘06 and $41 billion in ‘07, largely due to his prescription drug program.

This means Medicare’s costs would rise from $290 billion in 2005 to $340 billion in 2006 to $381 billion in 2007 — increases that must be restrained before the wave of Baby Boomers begin retiring.

Even so, Mr. Bush’s crackdown on the discretionary side of the budget (which must be appropriated each year) remains “a positive first step in spending restraint,” says Brian Riedl, Heritage Foundation chief budget analyst, one of Mr. Bush’s severest spending critics. Now it is up to Congress to begin applying the budget brakes to many programs that should have been stopped for speeding years ago.

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

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