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HOW HE SEES IT President tiptoes through the deficits



Published: Tue, April 19, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By JOHN HALL

MEDIA GENERAL NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- President Bush can be a Rambo when he wants to be, as Saddam Hussein has seen. And with his own Cabinet, he can be a tough manager.

He cashiered one Treasury secretary and put another on the road as a huckster for his pension privatization plan. To instill team spirit, Cabinet secretaries are being moved into the White House complex like junior executives.

So, why is Bush such a lamb in the fight to cut spending in Congress? On everything from bloated farm programs to pork barrel road programs, Bush has let spending get out of control.

This is a disappointment. He had come from Texas with a reputation not only as a Harvard MBA manager but as a skillful politician who had worked with a tough legislature and knew how to organize factions into cohesive majorities.

On some things in Washington, he has met or exceeded expectations. But by and large, these were proposals that siphoned the treasury -- tax cuts, spending increases on a costly prescription drug program for seniors, more spending for big farm subsidies and finally vast amounts of unforeseen spending he had to request for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Republicans used to be famous for holding down costs. But this administration has not imposed that discipline on the GOP majorities that now control Congress.

As a result, the budget cuts Bush proposed last February are being rejected right and left -- from grain programs to military authorizations -- and new spending is being piled on, even over the threat of presidential vetoes. Not much protest is coming from the White House.

Estate tax

Meanwhile, the treasury is slowly depleting. The House voted last week for permanent repeal of the estate tax, and there seems little will to stop the bill in the Senate. That will cost $290 billion over 10 years and add to a cumulative deficit that is crushing the nation in debt and interest.

Allan Hubbard, Bush's new economic policy director, said he and the president had "enormous confidence" in Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and praised him for taking the right steps to keep early signs of inflation under control by raising interest rates.

But the question is whether Greenspan has confidence in Bush and Hubbard. Reducing federal deficits is a proven path to controlling inflation. Yet the whole subject of balancing budgets is treated with stifled yawns in this administration.

Vice President Cheney was famously quoted as suggesting that deficits didn't matter anymore, and haven't since Ronald Reagan's day.

"Politicians will be politicians," said Hubbard, when told that many of Bush's spending-cut proposals seem headed to defeat because of opposition not only by Democrats but by Republicans. He said he was confident, nonetheless, that the administration would meet its targets to keep spending as a fixed percentage of gross national product.

That is the plan. But who is following it?

In the Senate last week, Republicans refused to go along with their leadership's plea to hold the line on military spending for families of servicemen.

Expensive course

The issue was whether to require the federal government, like some private employers do voluntarily, to make up the difference in monthly salary for employees who are reservists and guardsmen called to active duty. Doing so would compensate such soldiers more highly than regular active-duty service members, some senators argued. But on this and other issues, the Senate simply said yes, taking the most expensive and easiest course, ignoring threats of presidential vetoes.

Some of the legislative squabbles have escalated into epochal feuds with Congress, like the standoff over surface transportation that has been going on since the federal highway act expired in September 2003.

Congress passed six short-term extensions while it tried to come to terms with the president. Mountains of earmarked local projects keep getting piled onto the bill. The accumulated pork that passed the House and is awaiting the Senate's approval is nearing 4,000 separate projects, with little or no economic justification for any of the expensive bridges and roads carrying the few to nowhere.

Restoring pay-as-you-go -- PAYGO -- discipline in Congress seems an ever more distant and unreachable goal.

X John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service. Distributed by Scripps Howard.




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