Profiles in (incremental) courage
By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
SEVEN U.S. senators tried to inject a little sanity into the federal budget last week. We can take pride in the fact that two of them were from South Carolina.
Aside from Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint, the group of Republicans included John McCain of Arizona, John Ensign of Nevada, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John Sununu of New Hampshire.
Their proposals don’t go nearly far enough. But the sad truth is that by Washington standards, the initiative by these seven counts as a really bold move.
- Freeze cost-of-living pay raises for federal employees (including Congress), except those in the military and law enforcement.
- Delay implementation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, set to begin in 2006. Lower-income folks would still get $1,200 to help pay for medicine, while upper brackets would pay higher Medicare premiums a year earlier than planned.
- Eliminate $24 billion worth of earmarked pork projects in the recent $286 billion highway bill.
- Cut discretionary — that is, non-entitlement — spending by 5 percent across the board, exempting only national security.
Fine, as far as it goes. But consider:
- This is billed as a way to pay for Katrina relief. It would free up $125 billion. But with a deficit of $318.62 billion in fiscal 2005, and a bigger deficit projected in the year just begun, these moves would be inadequate if we didn’t spend a dime on disaster aid.
- Folks in Washington were actually celebrating the fact that the deficit was only $318.62 billion. It was expected to be higher. But it’s still the third-highest deficit in history, though dwarfed by the $412.85 billion shortfall in 2004. Another South Carolinian, Democratic Rep. John Spratt, noted that the Bush administration had once predicted a $269 billion surplus for 2005. As he told The Washington Post, that means 2005 turned out “$588 billion worse than the Bush administration projected when it sent up its first budget in 2001.”
- The new drug benefit should not be merely delayed. It should be thrown out. The original cost projection of $400 billion over 10 years has risen to more than $720 billion. The legislation deliberately avoided obvious steps to lower drug prices, even forbidding the government to use its purchasing clout to force down costs. Kicking this can down the road doesn’t solve the problem.
- Speaking of can-kicking: Baby boomers will soon start retiring in droves. And nothing has been done yet to pay for their Social Security and Medicare.
- While federal employees still serving their country would lose raises, those who have retired from federal service will get a 4.1 percent increase in their pension checks starting in January. Nothing against retirees, but this is the biggest cost-of-living increase in 15 years. Is this the time for it?
- About 48 million Social Security recipients will also get a 4.1 percent increase in the coming year — the biggest since 1991. What with higher energy costs, I doubt that many will be taking luxury cruises on an average hike of $39 a month. Still, do you expect a pay raise of 4.1 percent in the coming year? I don’t, and I don’t think I’m in the minority.
- Any across-the-board cut — a favorite remedy on the state level in South Carolina — is a cop-out. It avoids tough decisions, and hurts efficient, vital functions of government just as badly as wasteful programs that should be eliminated entirely. If senators can exempt national security (which they should), they can go further and specify what gets cut and what doesn’t elsewhere.
- Rethinking tax cuts — some of them, anyway (such as $70 billion in new ones proposed in the 2006 budget) — should at least be on the table. Republicans believe religiously that they are necessary to prosperity. I’m an agnostic on this point. It makes sense that some tax cuts would give a kick to the economy. Of course, so can federal spending. Maybe that’s why the GOP has pursued both courses so zealously since gaining control of the political branches. But I can’t believe all tax cuts are created equal in terms of their salutary economic effect. To refuse to reconsider any of them is to be blinded by ideology.
I don’t expect any of my concerns to gain serious traction on the Hill. The modest proposals put forth by the sensible seven were, of course, immediately assailed by Democrats. Our own Rep. Jim Clyburn complained that these cuts would be unfair to poor and middle-class citizens.
But Democrats always say things like that. What’s more relevant is what Republicans do, since they’re running the show. And what they’ve done is cut taxes while presiding over the biggest expansion of the federal government (not counting the military, which should have expanded) since Lyndon Johnson. Remember the huge intrusion into state and local affairs called No Child Left Behind? The latest farm bill? The $223 million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska (merely a symbol of billions in spending on unnecessary asphalt)?
Speaking of LBJ — we’re at war, folks. Everybody, rich and poor, should be giving up something to help us win it. Our volunteer military is doing its part, but almost no one else is.
As for Katrina relief, the Republican leadership is talking about maybe cutting $50 billion or so — an absurdity in times when we consider deficits of over six times that worthy of applause.
So what Sens. Graham and DeMint and five others are talking about deserves our praise and encouragement. It might not go far enough, but at least they want to do away with the Alaska bridge. That’s a start.