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JEFF JACOBY

The most bloated budget ever

GO TO the White House website, and you can read George W. Bush's sober and reassuring words about his proposed budget for fiscal year 2005.

 

"We're calling upon Congress to be wise with the taxpayer's money," the president told reporters on Monday. "We look forward to working with them to bring fiscal discipline to the appropriations process so we can cut the deficit in half over a five year period of time."

But the four-page fax sent to me by the White House Office of Communications a few hours later had precious little to say about fiscal discipline or being wise with the taxpayer's money. Instead, it went on and on about the millions and billions the administration plans to spend in the coming year:

"More than $500 million for the president's `Jobs for the 21st Century' initiative . . . a $1 billion increase for high-poverty schools . . . a $900 million increase over last year for aviation security and transportation security . . . $568 million (190 percent increase) to improve America's food and agriculture security . . . budget for VA medical care is over 40 percent larger . . . $2 billion in total funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program . . . $1.4 billion for the Superfund, a $123 million (10 percent) increase."

News reports homed in on the budget's minuscule smattering of program cuts, and Ted Kennedy, as usual, blustered hyperbolically ("It's the most antifamily, antiworker, anti-healthcare, anti-education budget in modern times, and it doesn't deserve to pass.") But, really, there is no way to get around the glaring reality: This is the most bloated federal budget in the history of federal budgets. The money involved -- nearly $2.4 trillion -- is staggering. "Uncle Sam Inc. will spend more money in just this year," writes economist Stephen Moore, who heads the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, "than it spent combined between 1787 and 1900 -- even after adjusting for inflation."

Much is being made of the fact that discretionary spending increases in the president's budget, other than for defense and homeland security, are being held to only 1 percent. To the administration's defenders, that is proof of its admirable frugality; to its left-wing critics, it is evidence of its coldhearted stinginess. What both sides neglect to mention is that this budget would lock in the skyrocketing budget increases of Bush's first three years.

Since taking office in 2001, Bush has allowed domestic discretionary outlays to soar by an annual average of 8.2 percent. That compared with 2.5 percent a year under Bill Clinton, 4.0 percent of George Bush the Elder, 2.0 percent of Jimmy Carter, and 6.8 percent under Richard Nixon. Under Ronald Reagan, nondefense discretionary spending declined by 1.3 percent per year. (All percentages are inflation-adjusted.) By any measure, Bush the Younger is the biggest-spending president in memory.

He hasn't achieved that distinction by himself, of course. He has been aided and abetted by Congress, both houses of which have been under Republican control for most of the past 10 years. It is getting hard to remember, but when the GOP swept the off-year elections in 1994, their Contract with America committed them to "restoring fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control Congress, requiring them to live under the same budget constraints as families and businesses."

As long as there was a Democrat in the White House, Republicans seemed to take that pledge at least semi-seriously. The federal budget was never actually cut, but at least spending growth was held in check. Indeed, President Clinton was forced to accept a plan to end deficit spending, a goal that was achieved in 1998.

But with the return of a Republican to the White House, all restraint has vanished. Every few months, another pork-stuffed bill is passed and sent to the White House, where the president dutifully signs it into law. In more than three years as president, Bush has never vetoed anything. Just last month, he uncomplainingly signed an $820 billion appropriations bill that showered money on an endless array of local projects with no legitimate claim on federal funds: an indoor rain forest in Iowa, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, golf lessons for kids in Florida -- and thousands more.

Meanwhile, looming over all this profligacy is -- no, not the record-busting budget deficits, though they are enormous and will generate intense pressure to raise taxes, but the exploding cost of entitlements. The brand-new prescription drug benefit, which at $400 billion over the next decade was already the most massive expansion of the welfare state in decades, is now projected to cost an even more astronomical $530 billion. Social Security, still unreformed, is headed for a colossal meltdown -- or a colossally expensive fix -- when the first wave of baby boomers retires. And as interest rates rise, the cost of servicing the federal debt is going to soar by tens of billions of dollars.

If this is the result of one-party government, maybe one-party government isn't a very good idea. "We can't afford any more right-wing Republicans," Howard Dean says. "They're too expensive." Put me down as one conservative who thinks he's got a point.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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