President Bush is to be congratulated for recognizing in the new budget proposal he submitted to Congress this week that the gargantuan deficits he has engineered during the past four years represent a looming catastrophe. Inheriting a government that spent $1.8 trillion and ran an $86 billion surplus in the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Bush managed in his first four years to run annual spending up to $2.3 trillion as of 2004, with an annual deficit of $412 billion. About half the president’s red ink is due to the costs of foreign wars and a slower economy; the rest is a direct result of his reckless tax cuts, most of them benefiting a tiny group of the wealthiest Americans.
Now, launching his second-term agenda, the president recognizes that his administration’s fiscal irresponsibility is threatening the dollar and putting our nation’s credibility at risk. His budget proposal for 2006 sets a declared aim of cutting the deficit to $390 billion. His longer-term goal is to cut the deficit in half by 2009.
The president’s ideas for fixing the fiasco, however, are at least as bad as the notions that got us here. Instead of rolling back his ruinous tax cuts for the rich, he’s proposing a host of spending cuts in essential services to the poor and middle class. He intends to slash billions from Washington’s share of Medicaid, the federal-state partnership that provides health care to the poor. An estimated 300,000 working-poor families with children would be cut from food stamps. The federal home-heating assistance program that helps low-income families make it through the winter in times of rising fuel costs would be cut by $182 million, or some 8.3%. In a fit of blind ideology, he proposes zeroing out Amtrak, the national passenger railway service, which would push the agency into likely bankruptcy and eliminate an essential transportation link serving mainly the middle class.
Oddest of all, though, are proposed cuts in essential police and firefighting services. The self-described wartime president, who sets no goal higher than preventing a repeat of the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, is proposing a 30% cut in a federal assistance program for local fire departments, and a whopping $1 billion cut in aid to local police departments.
If there’s any good news in this mess, it’s that even Congress seems to recognize the absurdity of the president’s proposals. He’ll be fought tooth and nail on every line of the budget, promising that much of it will be dead on arrival, and good riddance.