- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2005

The nastiest fights in Washington always come down to money, so it isn’t surprising that, two weeks after President Bush released his 2006 budget, many on the left are moaning their pet projects aren’t being fully funded. Well, it’s about time.

In his first term, Mr. Bush enacted some of the most fiscally reckless budgets in a quarter-century. The budget grew twice as fast as under Bill Clinton. The first-term Bush administration rhetoric of Reaganite tight-fistedness never caught up with the reality of the fiscal meltdown in Washington. Bloated Bush budgets, only padded with more grease and fat by Congress, created spending growth unmatched by any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, and a soaring $400 billion deficit.

Having now raked through all the minutiae of the Bush fiscal blueprint, it is clear that in many ways this new budget is a departure from his first-term budget bloat. If Mr. Bush sticks to his guns, federal domestic outlays will grow more slowly than at any time since the mid-1990s.

The budget calls for eliminating more than 100 wasteful and obsolete programs, ranging from vocational education grants to wasteful urban renewal grants for cities, to Amtrak subsidies. Domestic spending would grow less than the inflation rate. Some departments like Energy and Housing and Urban Development would get long overdue deep cuts.

Perhaps the most encouraging analysis comes from Bear Stearns chief economist David Malpass who finds that if the Bush budget is fully enforced, the national debt as a share of GDP in 10 years will be lower than anytime since before World War II. Mr. Malpass also finds the U.S. government debt is now the second-lowest of the five major industrial nations. (see Table).

This is not to say there aren’t disappointments in spending and priorities. The $2.6 trillion budget blueprint is still too spendthrift during a war in Iraq and a War on Terrorism.

As a Cato Institute analysis finds, there are even more funds sought for a multitude of domestic agencies and bureaus for which the federal government has no business spending.

These include $260 million for coal research subsidies, $28 billion more for college student aid, $300 million more for the NASA Mars project, and $1.5 billion for high-school aid.

The foreign aid budget would rise by 22 percent under what the White House calls its “leanest budget yet.” Thanks to all the new school initiatives, the Education Department budget will now approach $100 billion — twice its 1995 spending.

Bush budget chief Josh Bolton says this budget will help rein in out-of-control health-care expenditures. But the Medicare budget balloons by almost 8 percent.

The cost of the Medicare prescription drug bill enacted over the protests of congressional fiscal conservatives only 18 months ago has just been re-estimated upward by $100 billion over the next decade.

Mr. Bush rightly says he wants to cut farm payments (limiting payments to any farmer to $250,000 a year). But wait. Just three years ago he signed into law the most expensive and pork-laden farm bill in U.S. history.

The key to the Bush budget is enforcement and a steely commitment to holding Congress to these spending totals — and not a dime more. Mr. Bush needs to defend this budget with a sharpened budget veto knife. Otherwise, the budget proposal isn’t worth the 892 pages it’s printed on.

Winning this fight is critical to the free-market movement and the future of Republican governance. The GOP has lost credibility with the public at large, and conservatives in particular, over their budget stewardship.

Of course, the Bush administration has been forced to fight the war on terrorism. But the higher funding for guns, has not corresponded with reduced spending on butter. That has meant debt-laden budgets that have confused voters about whether Republicans still believe in smaller government.

Mike Pence, the Indiana Republican who now heads an organization of House conservatives, says “he and his conservative colleagues in the House will make budget restraint the very top priority in 2005. We have to re-establish our fiscal conservative credentials.”

He is right. Republicans need to prove they can pinch pennies and be good stewards of American tax dollars. They must prove they can get rid of agencies that provide nowhere near a public benefit commensurate with their annual cost. And they must set priorities so the deficit can be cut in half as President Bush has promised.

The Bush budget is a promising start to the fiscal debate. It includes the vital policy goals of the next 18 months: winning the war against terrorism, restraining domestic social spending, making tax cuts permanent, slashing the deficit in half, and creating a real New Deal for Social Security. That’s a full plate for the Republicans.

But it was precisely to achieve these goals that voters gave the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. So, yes, Mr. Bush’s budget is worth fighting for. Whether they fight or not will go a long way toward determining if the GOP deserves the pillars of power entrusted to them.

Stephen Moore is president of the Free Enterprise Fund and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

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