Bush's Irresponsible Budget

Slashing domestic programs and cutting taxes is a poor answer to cutting taxes

On Tuesday, President George W. Bush unveiled his first budget to a nation wading through a recession and engulfed in a war on terrorism. The budget, which sharply boosts military spending while cutting many domestic programs, reflects Bush’s conservative approach to these twin challenges. But the compassion for less fortunate Americans that he trumpeted in the presidential campaign seems to have fallen by the wayside as the fight against al-Qaeda has become the administration’s all-consuming priority.

Of course, since Sept. 11 the problems facing America have changed drastically, and Bush is right to respond with increased military spending. The aircraft, ships and munitions used in Afghanistan do not come cheaply, and it is prudent to replenish America’s military supplies and prepare for future operations. It is also essential to boost funding for intelligence-gathering agencies that are charged with anticipating and countering terrorist attacks before they happen. It is just as commendable to increase the pay of enlisted men and women, both those who fought in Afghanistan and those who supported them at home and elsewhere around the world.

Research and development on national missile defense, on the other hand, continues to consume about $8 billion of the White House budget. That is bad enough considering the current economic conditions. But if the system is ever actually finalized and implemented, costs could rise to a staggering $238 billion by 2025, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The administration should abandon this infeasible and counterproductive project now and divert that money to more deserving and useful causes.

For instance, although the nation is struggling through difficult economic times, Bush advocates cutting money from a host of government programs that are intended to help the poor. He has proposed to slash 15 percent from the budget of the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides crucial help to those who cannot afford to heat their homes in the winter. Many Department of Labor programs were curtailed, including those that enforce workplace safety and train recently laid-off workers for new jobs. These cuts may free up money in the short term, but they will do so at a cost. They will cause great harm to poor Americans in the short term, erasing much of the progress made by the Clinton administration.

Certainly, Bush has advocated cutting other programs besides those affecting the poor. Highway spending would be cut by a whopping 29.6 percent, eliminating needed repairs and improvements to necessary infrastructure. Even more puzzling are cuts in funding for teaching hospitals at a time when the public health infrastructure ought to be reinforced rather than gutted. These cuts, and many others, seem out of place at a time when the economy needs more public spending as a stimulus.

Due to Bush’s irresponsible tax cut last year, less money is available to fund public programs than there should be. To make matters worse, the new budget sets aside billions more dollars for tax cuts over the next several years. Those tax cuts, which would almost certainly be directed towards the wealthiest Americans, would come at the expense of low- and middle-income citizens who most need tax relief.

The budget will be running deficits for several years, by the administration’s own calculations. On its own, this would not be a cause for uproar—a major new worldwide threat has arisen simultaneously with a slump in the domestic economy, and some deficit spending might be necessary to jump-start production and fight terrorism. But it is tragic that money is instead being refunded to the wealthiest Americans while the poor can hope to receive even less help from the government.

We hope that Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) can extract important concessions on these points during budget deliberations. Recent Republican attempts to paint him as “obstructionist” are true only insofar as he has tried to obstruct ill-conceived tax rebates for the rich while fighting for America’s less fortunate.