- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

Lawmakers, bureaucrats and special interests who live off the taxpayers eagerly await George Bush’s next budget, which insiders say will be the toughest he has ever submitted.

While the news focus this week will be on Mr. Bush’s inauguration and his long-term plans for the next four years, the shorter-term focus is, as always, on money and whose programs will be cut or frozen in the president’s fiscal 2006 spending plan. The battle lines have already begun to form.

Last week, Heritage Foundation President Edwin J. Feulner, one of President Bush’s staunchest allies, fired a warning shot across the president’s budgetary bow in a sharply critical assessment of Mr. Bush’s fiscal policies over the last four years.

Writing in Heritage’s quadrennial “Mandate for Leadership” book, Mr. Feulner praised Mr. Bush for strengthening national security and cutting taxes. But he also admonished him for pushing too many big government proposals, including massive spending increases in Medicare, federal aid to education and farm subsidies, and for imposing protectionist steel tariffs that hurt consumers and manufacturers alike.

Acknowledging Mr. Bush ran and won on a second-term agenda that called for limiting the growth of government, Mr. Feulner skeptically said: “It remains to be seen whether the rhetoric of the [president’s] campaign will be manifest in Washington in the coming years. Sadly, commitment to principle has been missing in Washington’s politics for quite some time now.”

Among his complaints, Mr. Feulner said it was especially “disappointing … to see Congress pass and the president sign the biggest farm bill and the biggest education bill in our nation’s history, as well as the largest entitlement increase since Lyndon Johnson’s so-called Great Society.”

Well, that was in Mr. Bush’s first term. In the second term, budget watchers say to expect a new George Bush, who will be more aggressive on discretionary, nondefense expenditures: Their overall levels in 2005 essentially will be frozen next year.

Mr. Bush gave a peek into his budget plans last week when he told The Washington Times his spending blueprint was “going to be tough.” That message was underscored by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that Mr. Bush will exert “very, very strong discipline” on next year’s spending. “That discipline will be there big time,” Mr. Card told business leaders.

Among the budget-cutting targets: the bloated Agriculture Department, corporate welfare, scientific research, housing, state and local giveaway grants, and other low-priority and no-priority programs that will be slashed or eliminated altogether.

Some spending cuts that have been leaked out include taking the ax to the waste-ridden Community Development Block Grants that have mushroomed to $5 billion under Mr. Bush, but could be slashed by as much as 50 percent. With an annual deficit of more than $400 billion, it is hard to defend a program that is building horseback riding trails, bike paths, yacht harbors, swimming pools, movie theaters, water parks and other spending boondoggles.

Budget officials tell me other Housing and Urban Development programs will be cut. Indeed, housing programs overall are expected to be frozen at last year’s levels, as are many other spending programs in the budget.

The National Science Foundation’s social research grants, long criticized as wasteful, will be cut and NSF’s overall spending is expected to be flatlined. So will the National Institutes of Health, which has seen its budget skyrocket over the past decade, especially in the past four years.

Mr. Bush’s budget will call for spending cuts and reforms he has proposed before but Congress has ignored. However, the fiscal climate has changed on Capitol Hill as Republican lawmakers focus more intently on Mr. Bush’s promise to slash the deficit in half over the next four years.

So Mr. Bush will try once again to slash the Army Corps of Engineers, whose building projects have wasted billions of dollars. He proposed a nearly $600 million cut this year, but to no avail. White House officials say they think Congress will be tougher on the Corps’ budget this time around.

Of course, you can’t get a real handle on spending if you don’t restrain the growth in entitlements, and the administration’s prescription drug benefit program will sharply boost Medicare spending in the coming years — big time.

One way to curb entitlements is to block grant programs to the states. Last year, the administration proposed turning Medicaid over to the states in a plan that would have given governors wider discretion to tighten eligibility rules. Mr. Bush will return to this proposal, arguing it is time to increase states’ flexibility over a health-care program they are responsible for delivering.

Can President Bush rein in runaway domestic spending by cutting the fat out of the federal budget? In the absence of political pressures in a nonelection year, and with a stronger Republican majority in both chambers, the chances are reasonably good that he can, and will.

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

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