Thursday, June 14, 2007

After increasing the national debt by more than $3.2 trillion over the previous six years, President Bush submitted a fiscal 2008 budget totaling $2.9 trillion, which represents a trillion-dollar-plus increase (56 percent) over the spending level ($1.86 trillion) he inherited from the 2001 budget. Mr. Bush’s five-year budget blueprint would add nearly $600 billion to the national debt in 2008 alone and another $1.9 trillion over the next four years. To keep the debt from soaring even higher, the president had to rely on numerous delusional assumptions. These included the absurd notions that his global war on terror would cost $50 billion in 2009 (and zero thereafter) and that he, his successor and Congress will be hitting tens of millions of middle- and upper-middle-class families with the alternative minimum tax over the next five years.

Having supervised the spending explosion that was instrumental in increasing the national debt by nearly 60 percent is six short years, Mr. Bush and his Office of Management and Budget are now preparing to go to war with the Democrat-controlled Congress over $23 billion. That’s the amount by which the Democrats’ planned domestic appropriations in 2008 exceed the president’s proposals.

Let’s be clear here. The president is right: Democrats are bigger spendthrifts than Republicans. But let’s also get some perspective. The extra $23 billion, to the extent that it is not offset through pay-as-you-go rules, represents 4 percent of the president’s projected $568 billion increase in the national debt in fiscal 2008, which will be the seventh year of the current economic expansion. If Democrats agree to accept responsibility for raising the national debt by an additional $23 billion (or some fraction thereof) next year, will the president accept his responsibility for increasing it by the initial $568 billion?

Meanwhile, House Republicans, who spent more than a decade proposing or signing off on rising earmarks and pork-barrel spending, want the public to believe that they have suddenly seen the errors of their ways. They have been pounding away at House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey — the highly volatile, very liberal, big-spending Wisconsin Democrat — and he deserves the rhetorical pummeling he has been receiving. Mr. Obey’s idea of earmark reform is to have the House vote on appropriations bills without knowing anything about the thousands upon thousands of earmarks that will be added as the bills make their way to conference committees with the Senate. Mr. Obey pledges to reveal the earmarks before the August recess, giving lawmakers the opportunity to object in writing. This, of course, is ludicrous. And it clearly makes a mockery of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s repeated promises to end the culture of corruption, which has afflicted the earmark process, and provide citizens with the most open, most transparent House in history.

Yes, Republicans purportedly want more transparency in the earmark process. But by how much do they really want to reduce earmark spending? Apparently, representatives from both parties have inundated the Appropriations Committee with about 32,000 earmark requests. To his credit, House Minority Leader John Boehner, having never accepted a single earmark for his Ohio district, has more credibility on the subject of earmark reform than the White House and the majority of his Republican congressional colleagues, who, to the best of our knowledge, haven’t exactly sworn off earmarks. For example, when Republican Mike Rogers rightly objected to the flagrantly questionable $23 million earmark for a National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pa., the home of appropriations heavyweight Jack Murtha, columnist Robert Novak observed that Mr. Rogers had 10 current earmarks costing more than $45 million.

According to a 2006 study by the Congressional Research Service, Republicans, who captured Congress in the 1994 elections, reduced earmarks from 4,146 ($23.2 billion) in fiscal 1994 to 3,023 ($19.5 billion) in fiscal 1996. By fiscal 2005, however, when Republicans controlled both Congress and the White House, earmarks totaled 15,877 ($47.4 billion).

If Republicans are looking for fiscal credibility, they can begin by offering a budget plan that does not increase the national debt by $2.5 trillion during the last five years of what the president projects to be the nation’s longest (November 2001-September 2012) economic expansion in history.

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