Bill Press: War does not justify Bush budget
By Bill Press
WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- Be careful what you say about President Bush's 2003 budget. Its cover is a full-color representation of the American flag. The deliberate message is: You either support this budget or you're un-American.
That's just White House spin. Every president's budget is subject to criticism, and this one deserves its share. Shame on Bush for trying to use the flag and September 11 to justify more big government, a return to deficit spending, stealing from the Social Security surplus, permanent tax cuts for the rich and further fattening an already bloated Pentagon.
First, the raw numbers. President Bush is asking Congress for $2.1 trillion, a 9 percent increase in federal spending. He projects the government would run $106 billion in the red -- returning to deficit-spending for the first time since 1997. And he breaks a bipartisan pledge not to tap Social Security reserves for general spending. If President Clinton had proposed that budget, Republicans would denounce him as fiscally irresponsible.
There's something sinister here. Why is it that, out of office, Republicans preach smaller government, balanced budgets, no deficits and no stealing from Social Security -- and, once in office, they deliver just the opposite?
In fact, we've seen this Bush budget before. Only the dollars are different. Otherwise, it's a carbon copy of President Reagan's budget. He was the first to insist we could cut taxes, increase military spending and still have money left over. The result was economic disaster.
Under Reagan, annual deficits grew from $50 billion to $150 billion and the national debt soared from $900 billion to $2.9 trillion. Reaganomics produced 12 straight years of budget deficits that ended with Bill Clinton. Didn't we learn anything? Do we really want to go down that path again?
The biggest, and least defensible, part of the Bush budget is for military spending. He wants $396 billion for the Pentagon and the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons program. That is $45.5 billion above current levels, or an increase of 13 percent. It is also, reports the nonpartisan Center for Defense Information, a 15 percent increase over average spending during the Cold War, for a military that is one-third smaller than it was 10 years ago.
It would be one thing if that spending were tied to the war on terror. It's not. Most of the money goes to buy heavy new weapons systems -- ships, fighter planes, helicopters, armed vehicles -- that would have done nothing to prevent the terrorist attacks of September 11. How, for example, do the evil deeds of 19 guys with box cutters justify building three new fighter planes?
As Paul Krugman suggests in the New York Times, the motto of the Bush budget seems to be: "Leave no defense contractor behind."
Bush's military budget is all the more unacceptable because it does nothing to address the problem of waste in defense spending. According to a report issued last year by Business Executives for National Security, an astounding 70 percent of the defense budget is spent on overhead and infrastructure. Only 30 percent reaches our men and women in the field.
That inefficiency is even recognized in Bush's budget. Budget Director Mitch Daniels brags about the fact that this budget is the first one ever based on performance. In fact, it contains a chart ranking every federal agency on five different criteria, including financial management, human capital and competitive sourcing.
Agencies are awarded a green dot for good performance; a red dot for "serious flaws." The Pentagon gets five red dots, as bad as you can get -- but Bush still pours in another $45.5 billion. Go figure.
Even if you give Bush the benefit of the doubt, there's one other part of his budget that makes no sense. Let's admit, for the sake of argument, that the war on terror is so serious it merits more big spending, more big government, more big guns and more big deficits. Surely that means we should also take a second look at the tax cuts enacted last year, when it looked like surpluses would last forever.
Not according to George Bush. He not only refuses to delay his big tax cuts, he would make them permanent. Even in wartime, his rich friends come first.
In his budget, President Bush spends wildly but uses accounting tricks to mask how high the deficit really is. It could have been written by Enron.
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