Death by a Hundred and Fifty Cuts
The budget process is the process by which the government comes up with a budget.
4:41 PM, Feb 10, 2005 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
President Bush unfurled his 2,300-page, $2.57 trillion budget proposal--the largest federal budget in history--on Monday morning, in a press availability with reporters, and at some point someone asked him what he thought about the document. "It is a budget that sets priorities," the president said, before adding, "it's a budget that focuses on results."
Less than 24 hours later, however, the Washington press corps, no doubt after reading all the budget's 2,300 pages, and no doubt after digesting the various expenditure tables and deficit projections and other fiscal gobbledygook included therein, reached a very, very different conclusion. Namely: The 2006 budget is . . . well, nothing less than an unprecedented, shameless, and otherwise brutish and medieval proposal to "slash" funding for "popular programs" that help "low-income children," "farmers," and the "police." Besides which, it's "unrealistic."
That, anyhow, is the way two Washington Post reporters, Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman, characterized Bush's proposals in separate articles for their paper's February 8 edition. And, truth is, such a characterization may be right; for the first time since he took office in 2001, the president wants Congress to shrink some portion of the federal government in real terms.
But shrink what portion? A small one. According to the Los Angeles Times, as it stands Bush would cut discretionary spending--the roughly 17 percent of the federal budget that Congress actually controls via appropriations bills. Cut it by how much? By about one percent. Over five years.
Put another way: The 2006 budget would limit the growth of discretionary spending to 2.1 percent over five years. Projected inflation is 2.3 percent over five years. And that, if I follow all this correctly, makes for a two-tenths of a percent cut in the rate of growth of non-defense discretionary spending per year. And that, if I further follow, makes for not much of a "cut" at all.
These numbers might be wrong, of course. They probably are, in fact. But don't blame me. I got them from Joshua Bolten, head of the White House's Office of Management and Budget. Bolten oversees the 500 career civil service officers who, in turn, oversee the "budget process." The budget process is the process by which the government comes up with a budget. It is a "good process," Bolten told a bunch of reporters at breakfast on Thursday. It is a "very cooperative process." It is a "process of real interchange."
What had he learned about the federal budget and the federal "budget process," one reporter asked Joshua Bolten? For starters, "there are lots of nice things that you'd like to spend money on-and you can't." Also, "what I found is that we spend a lot of money."
The most recent budget process began last year and ended about a month ago, in early January, which left Bolten and his team plenty of time to "tweak" the budget, put the finishing touches on it, bind it into all those pretty volumes--but apparently not enough time to fashion a relatively accurate and inclusive portrait of the government's projected finances over the next five years.
Because, you see, the budget is missing . . . stuff. It is missing funds for the war, for one thing. Money for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq is covered in supplemental appropriations bills, not in the budget. So, too, whatever costs the president's proposed Social Security reform might incur in the next five years will be dealt with elsewhere, not in the budget. Moreover, as part of any substantial tax reform package, it's likely, if not guaranteed, that the president and Congress will abolish the Alternative Minimum Tax, or AMT--a tax meant for the rich but now ensnaring, due to rising affluence and subsequent "bracket creep," middle-class families. Which abolition, while providing a boon to taxpayers, would also reduce government revenues substantially. The 2006 budget doesn't figure for AMT repeal; in fact it relies on revenues from the AMT to halve the deficit by 2009.
There's a theory behind these elisions, of course, and it's an understandable, if not entirely persuasive, one. The theory is that it is impossible, indeed undesirable, to make room in one's budget for things that haven't happened yet, and are perhaps unlikely to happen at all. Things like Social Security reform or tax reform, for example. And, this theory continues, since we don't necessarily know how much military operations in the war on terror will cost next month, or the month after next, why not have some degree of flexibility?