Saturday, February 19, 2005

There’s a conspiracy afoot to convince U.S. taxpayers President Bush has submitted a lean, mean budget for fiscal 2006. The funny thing is, Democrats and Republicans are both in on it, and journalists are going along. A reality check is in order.

In announcing his budget, Mr. Bush proclaimed, “It is a budget that is lean and effective and says we’ll spend money on programs that work.” At the Detroit Economic Club, he called it “the most disciplined proposal since Ronald Reagan was in office.” He added “Congress needs to join with me to bring real spending discipline to the federal budget” and “spending discipline requires difficult choices.”

Vice President Richard Cheney joined the chorus: “We are being tight. This is the tightest budget that has been submitted since we got here.”

Journalists took him at his word. Google the phrase “Bush budget,” and the first titles are “Bush budget seeks deep cutbacks,” “Bush to outline ‘toughest’ budget,” “Bush budget to call for spending cuts,” and “Dramatic cuts part of Bush budget.”

Many newspaper headlines agreed. The Wall Street Journal: “A ‘lean’ budget from Bush cuts mainly at home.” USA Today: “Bush budget calls for big cuts.” Los Angeles Times: “Bush to propose billions in cuts.” New York Times: “President offers budget proposal with broad cuts.” The Washington Post: “Previously untargeted programs at risk.”

And the Democrats chimed in. They agreed with Mr. Bush that his budget was lean and tight, though they denounced him for it. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called it “irresponsible,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi raised the stakes to “immoral.” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy warned of “3 million children left behind.” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton denounced Mr. Bush for “slashing funding,” and Rep. Pete Stark decried “massive cuts.” Sen. Charles Schumer may have topped the Senate by condemning “a meat-ax budget” that would be “devastating” and “brutal” for New York.

But Mr. Schumer couldn’t quite match Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, who compared the president’s budget to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “Back on September 11, terrorists attacked our metropolitan cores, two of America’s great cities. They did that because they knew that was where they could do the most damage and weaken us the most,” Mr. O’Malley said. “Years later, we are given a budget proposal by our commander in chief, the president of the United States. And with a budget ax, he is attacking America’s cities. He is attacking our metropolitan core.”

Now for that reality check. Mr. Bush proposes the federal government spend $2.57 trillion, or $2,570 billion, in the next fiscal year. That’s 38 percent more than the federal government spent in the last year of President Bill Clinton’s term. Spending on programs for the poor is up even more, about 45 percent. Annual spending has risen $700 billion since Mr. Bush took office. The proposed 2006 budget is $80 billion higher than the 2005 budget, though both can be expected to rise before the books are closed.

You would have to be Jabba the Hutt to see that as a lean budget. So why does everybody seem to agree it is? Well, to be fair, two journalists did see the reality. Janet Hook’s article in the Los Angeles Times was headlined “President putting ‘big’ back in government.” And Jim VandeHei reported in The Washington Post under this headline: “Blueprint calls for bigger, more powerful government.”

But Democrats, Republicans and journalists mostly agree Mr. Bush has submitted a lean, tight $2.57 trillion budget. Why? I think we have what dancers call a pas de deux here. Or maybe in honor of our Texas president and his aversion to all things French, we should just call it a Texas Two-Step: The president pretends to cut the budget, and Democrats pretend to believe him.

Both sets of politicians thereby appeal to their bases. Mr. Bush’s voters want to hear he is cutting the budget and saving tax dollars. The Democrats’ base of government employees and federal grant recipients want to see Democratic senators fighting budget cuts. When Mr. Kennedy and Mrs. Clinton denounce Mr. Bush’s “devastating” budget cuts, their supporters become outraged at Mr. Bush. Meanwhile, Republican voters respond to such charges by becoming more supportive of Mr. Bush. They may have had some doubts about Mr. Bush’s commitment to fiscal conservatism, but the denunciations from Mrs. Pelosi and her colleagues assuage those doubts.

For taxpayers, though, the bottom line is: This is indeed President Bush’s tightest budget yet, but that’s like being the slimmest sumo wrestler in the ring.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and coeditor of the “Cato Handbook on Policy.”

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