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Jewish World Review March 2, 2001 / 7 Adar, 5761

Dale McFeatters

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Consumer Reports

Bush either brave or naive -- THE annual budget of the United States, normally issued the first Monday in February, is a massive pile of paper, four volumes in all, running to about 2,730 pages.

New presidents are excused this onerous chore their first year in office and are allowed a slimmer presentation. President George W. Bush submitted his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, and his aides were at pains to say that although the budget document was thin it wasn't shallow.

Insisted White House budget director Mitch Daniels, "The document provided this morning, at about 207 pages, is about a third longer than the last new administration was able to, or chose to, deliver. It's longer, really, than all of its predecessors."

The first few chapters of the Bush budget promise to cut taxes, strengthen education, save Social Security, pay down the debt, beef up the military and still run a $231 billion surplus.

Bush's advisers are probably counting on lawmakers not to read much farther than that. Because if the lawmakers pushed past Chapter VII, the numbingly named "Summaries by Agency," they would come to Chapter VIII, "Budget Process Reform." They would be alarmed and then irate. Bush is planning to eliminate or clamp down on all the tricks and subterfuges Congress uses to spend money.

Bush says, "Once Congress agrees to a budget, it should abide by the limits therein." The new president is either very brave or very naive.

In 1990 and again in the balanced budget agreement, Congress set annual spending caps for itself. Under what's called PAYGO, spending that exceeds those caps must be offset by tax increases or cuts elsewhere. For this fiscal year, Congress overshot the caps by $110 billion. Close enough for government work, as they say, but Bush thinks those caps should be binding.

Bush also wants the non-binding budget resolution, due out in mid-April, made binding. Fat chance. The resolution is supposedly Congress' budget blueprint, telling the members how much money they have to work with. It allows the congressional leadership to throw around words like "austerity," "fiscal discipline," "cutting fat, not muscle." Come September, when the real spending decisions are made, only spoilsports or the incurably wonkish remember the April budget resolution.

Undaunted, Bush also wants to eliminate emergency supplemental appropriations. These bills are supposed to pay for unexpected emergencies - wars, natural disasters - and don't count against the budget caps. Among the emergencies these supplementals have paid for are New York's 2nd Avenue subway, a Great Lakes icebreaker and a training center in West Virginia. "Emergencies" tend to occur late in the session when the regular budget is pretty much locked up.

Instead, Bush proposes a National Emergency Reserve to fund true emergencies. Bush can't really believe that a large pot of appropriated money would just sit there unmolested for an entire session. He'd get the worst of both worlds: Congress would loot the Reserve and still pass emergency supplements.

Bush also proposes to curtail "earmarks" - individual pet pork projects - but, not being totally unrealistic, he didn't dwell on it.

Presidents and Congress tend to play chicken with each other - and may even like to do so - stalling on the budget right up until the Oct. 1 deadline. The result can be a budgetary mess known as a "train wreck" or even a government shutdown. Bush notes that in 19 of the past 20 years Congress and the president have not finished a budget on time. Being an out-of-towner still, he believes this is bad. He thinks the government should do its work on time and in an orderly fashion. Dreamer.

All of these reforms are fine ideas, but to get them Bush will have to crack the skulls and stamp on the toes of his new best friends in Congress. President Truman used to say, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." It was smart of Bush to bring two with him.

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02/23/01: Long hours=great presidency? What our 'dim-bulb' of a president knows
02/16/01: Just what the spin-doctor ordered? Bush can't even get ridiculed on TV
02/09/01: A heartbeat from presidency, and both feet in obscurity
02/02/01: AlGore is continuing his fall from grace
01/26/01: "Fifteen Minutes in December"

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