- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005

President Bush will propose a virtual freeze on overall non-defense discretionary spending in next year’s budget and will abolish or consolidate wasteful, duplicative programs, according to administration budget officials.

Deep spending cuts are slated for housing and community development block grants, scientific research, agriculture and veterans programs, among other departments and agencies that, along with higher tax revenue from a growing economy, could shrink last year’s $400 billion deficit by more than $150 billion, said budget officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The officials said the budget will essentially freeze aggregate discretionary spending at this year’s levels.

Last year, Congress kept the rise in discretionary appropriations, excluding defense and homeland security, to less than 1 percent as Mr. Bush requested. But overall non-emergency discretionary spending increased by about 4 percent.

Mr. Bush and his administration have come under increasing criticism from spending critics who accuse them and Republicans in Congress of campaigning on budget-cutting rhetoric while pursuing big government policies over the past four years.

The president, in an interview with The Washington Times last week, said the new budget he will submit to Congress “will be a tough budget.” White House budget officials say the budget for fiscal 2006, which begins Oct. 1, will be their leanest ever.

Spending critics say they will believe it when they see it.

“It wouldn’t take much to make it the leanest budget in years, given the spending spree they’ve been on in the last several years,” said Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

“Overall spending has jumped 23 percent in the last three years. Non-defense, non-homeland security discretionary spending has leaped 39 percent in the last three years. We’ve been on a course of runaway spending, unrestrained entitlements and crippling debt which will lead to higher taxes and a poor economy,” Mr. Riedl said in an interview.

Administration officials do not deny that spending in the first three years of Mr. Bush’s first term climbed significantly, but they say that the sharp increase was largely the result of emergency security needs, economic aid, and the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks. But they also say that the budget’s non-defense, non-entitlements expansion was dramatically slowed last year.

“The president proposed less than 4 percent growth in overall discretionary spending and less than 1 percent growth outside of non-defense, non-homeland security and that’s what Congress delivered last year,” said Chad Kolton, spokesman for White House budget Director Josh Bolten.

“We’ve definitely dialed [previous spending increases] way back,” he said.

Administration insiders and congressional budget officials said this week that the budget Mr. Bush will send to Congress early next month will propose freezing or substantially cutting many agencies and programs that fall within the discretionary budget that must be appropriated each year.

The $5 billion Community Development Block Grant, a favorite target of budget cutters, could be sliced in half. Public housing programs will be flat-lined. National Science Foundation research funds will be frozen. Even the Veterans Administration’s budget, which has seen big increases in the past four years, will have its growth slowed.

The administration also plans a much more expansive effort to eliminate programs and to merge and consolidate others in its upcoming budget, according to White House officials.

But Congress has rejected the president’s efforts to eliminate programs in the past. Last year, Mr. Bush proposed eliminating 65 mostly small federal spending programs that totaled about $3 billion “and even these met with stiff resistance from Congress,” Mr. Riedl said.

Veteran budget analysts think that Mr. Bush could make some progress in restraining the growth of spending this year, but say it’s going to require a Herculean effort on his part.

“I think it’s achievable but it’s going to be a very tough row to hoe. It’s going to take a lot of firmness by the president and a willingness on the part of Republicans to be team players,” said Robert Reischauer, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office who now heads the Urban Institute.

Still, Mr. Reischauer cautioned that, even if non-homeland, non-defense discretionary spending is held flat, “it will still be a long way from meaningful deficit reduction because entitlements and defense and homeland security are the engines of spending growth.”

Freezing only that portion of the budget, which represents one-sixth of total spending, “makes only a modest contribution to deficit reduction goals,” he said.

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