THE LID IS OFF
Washington Post: President Bush this week issued a budget wrapped in the American flag. Just in case Congress didn't get the message from the stars and stripes on the cover of the budget books, he flew to a military base to proclaim that lawmakers should show support for the war on terrorism by fully funding his request for a record increase in defense spending. Budget director Mitchell Daniels underscored the administration's priorities. As the budget was drawn up, he told reporters, "if there was any proposal linked to defeating terrorism or to making Americans more safe at home that had even a reasonable case for it, we agreed and rolled it into the budget." Meanwhile, other discretionary spending programs, "the rest of government," will be operating under tight limits.
Expensive war: No doubt Congress is eager, as it should be, to pay generously for the fight against terrorists. War is expensive, and so is the kind of global presence that the United States should maintain to deter conflict and to participate in peacekeeping. The events of the past year have laid to rest the notion, popular among some reformers, that the Pentagon could safely skip a generation of weapons and devote itself mostly to research.
But Congress should ask if the Defense Department, under the heading of fighting terrorism, has decided that it doesn't have to make any tough choices. Do uniformed personnel need another large across-the-board pay hike, the second broad increase in two years, or could the services meet their needs with more targeted pay raises? What hass happened to promises of more businesslike practices and elimination of duplication among services? To ask such questions reflects no lack of zeal for the war. Nor should the administration let Congress off the hook for its support of unnecessary bases and weapons programs, simply because now it's easier to pork up than to fight back.
Meanwhile the administration pinches other programs, including some it wants credit for supporting. Mr. Bush called in his State of the Union speech for greater corporate responsibility, but his budget fails to offer the funds needed to attract and keep talented employees at the Securities and Exchange Commission. He has hailed the bipartisan cooperation that produced last year's education bill, but the education budget is so tight that Rep. George Miller of California, one of the Democratic architects of the bill, said it breaks promises Mr. Bush made in signing the measure. Spending for job training, for public housing repairs, for child care is held flat or cut back.
Tax cuts: The budget documents acknowledge the heavy Social Security and Medicare costs that will hit when the baby-boom generation begins to retire in about 10 years, but the budget itself makes no provision for them. Instead, Mr. Bush clings to the unaffordable tax cuts that were his first priority last year, and in fact proposes more, while penciling in spending limits he knows Congress will reverse.
The danger is that, with Mr. Bush leading the way back to deficit land, Congress will merrily follow. The tax cuts will stay, but spending discipline won't; lawmakers will restore some needed programs, and a lot of unneeded ones too. Then, both sides having avoided the hard choices, the nation will still have to face the budget burdens that loom in the next decade, with fewer resources to meet them.