In the contest for the dullest book published by the federal government, the annual budget would appear in almost everyone’s top 10 list. Most Americans are numerically challenged, except when it comes to sports statistics. If presidential candidates devoted an evening to debating the federal budget on television, people might be driven to take up reading. Even business majors do not flock to economics and accounting courses looking for excitement.
Yet other than decisions on war and peace, there are few governmental decisions that are more important or have greater impact than Washington’s decisions about raising and spending money. The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood this. That is why they gave to Congress the power to tax and spend. Each year the president draws up a budget that is submitted to the Congress shortly after his State of the Union address. While the address makes great theater, the real long-term impact of any administration is in its budget. This year is no different.
President George W. Bush faced serious problems in drawing up his budget. The government is already running deeply in the red because of the recession, the president’s tax cuts and the Iraq war. Although the recession appears to be over—with improvements in employment still lagging—his tax cuts have severely reduced the amount of revenue that will be available to the government in the future, even under optimistic forecasts. In addition, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven costly, and there is no end in sight for the occupations. Additional money is also needed to deal with threats of terrorism at home and abroad. And most recently, the estimated cost of the administration’s prescription drug bill, which was enacted by Congress only last year, has gone up.
The consequences can be seen in the president’s $2.4 trillion budget for fiscal year 2005. Large appropriations will be given to the administration’s antiterrorism and military programs. Of the $31 billion increase in discretionary spending, all but $2 billion goes to domestic security and defense. The remaining expenditures for government increase by less than half the inflation rate, and 128 programs will be curtailed or eliminated. Despite the cuts, the budget forecasts a $364 billion deficit (this year’s will be $521 billion). While deficit spending during a recession can be helpful to the economy, these figures are simply not sustainable, especially when the future costs of Social Security are factored in.
It is only by delving into the details of the budget that the reality (or unreality) of it becomes clear. While everyone recognizes that firefighters and police will probably be the first responders to a terrorist attack, funding for them is cut by 18 percent, or $805 million. Likewise there is a 10 percent cut ($144 million) in grants to state, local and hospital efforts to counter bio-terrorism. Last year the president appeared at a photo-op in an Atlanta public housing project, but his budget now eliminates the HOPE IV funding that made that project possible. And despite his promises to support the global effort to fight H.I.V./AIDS, money for the global fund would be cut by 64 percent, to $200 million from the current $550 million a year.
Many of the president’s budgetary increases are balanced by cuts in similar programs elsewhere. Just weeks before releasing his budget, for example, President Bush touted in the State of the Union address a $250 million expansion of job-training programs in the Department of Labor, but his budget also cuts $300 million in existing vocational education programs in the Department of Education. Likewise even in antiterrorism programs, an extra $135 million for bio-surveillance for Health and Human Services is balanced by a cut of $400 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What the budget gives with one hand, it more than takes away with the other.
The budget is the most political document in Washington. Neither party is very enlightened when it comes to discussing it. Democrats pretend that everything could be funded if we just raised taxes on the rich. Republicans argue that cutting government spending can be done without causing any pain. In truth, as every family knows, budgeting is about making tough choices. The country decided, rightly or wrongly, to go to war. Now we must pay for it. To wage war while cutting taxes was irresponsible to begin with, and it is irresponsible to think that we can continue down that road.
There are those who believe that the government is the problem, and the more cuts the better—until, of course, their favorite program is cut. This is the way the game has been played for decades in Washington, but it is time to get serious and look at the numbers. Dull as they are, that is where the future lies.