Deficit plan should address entire budget

Until recently, proponents of fiscal sanity could maintain at least a slim hope that President George W. Bush might wage serious war against the ballooning deficit. Unfortunately, not even those slim hopes could survive last week’s release of the 999-page 2005 budget plan by the White House.

Keeping a promise to cut the deficit in half by 2009 required some glaring omissions. Funding for reconstruction and military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan beyond September 2004, estimated to run as high as $80 million over the next five years, is strangely absent. Nor did the hundreds of billions of dollars it would cost to partially privatize Social Security make it into the budget. The true costs of the Bush tax cuts, numbering in the trillions, begin to pile up after 2009 – the final year of the projected budget.

Bush’s plan for deficit reduction seems to hinge on cuts in discretionary, nondefense spending, even though such outlays account for less than one-third of the budget. The administration shows no signs of preparing the country for the impending retirement of the baby boomers, a demographic shift certain to strain Social Security and Medicare. A serious plan to tackle the deficit would address the entire budget, including entitlements and defense spending, while allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire.

The president might be intent on growing his way out of the red. While much of the current deficit reflects a stagnating economy, economic growth alone is ill-equipped to handle today’s record deficits. It took successive tax increases and a sustained commitment to restrain spending throughout the 1990s to roll back the Reagan-era deficits.

The White House might simply be banking on a disinterested public. A recent poll indicated that 2 percent of Americans see the deficit as a main issue in the upcoming election. Such indifference, however, does not extend to U.S. allies, who plan to raise the issue at an upcoming Group of Seven meeting this weekend.

When asked Saturday by Tim Russert of “Meet the Press” about his growing reputation for fiscal recklessness, Bush said that “in the last year of President Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15 percent, and ours have steadily declined.” Actually, federal discretionary spending is up 25 percent in the last two years. Bush has said he wants to cut the deficit in half within five years. He can start by getting his facts straight.