Bush's fight to keep the checkbook from Congress

His budget runs under $2 trillion, but holding the line will prove difficult amid surplus.

In weeks to come President Bush will likely find it difficult to prevent Congress from pumping more millions into his just-released, detailed $1.96 trillion budget.

That's partly due to the nature of Washington surplus politics. An era of plenty has reduced the number of gimlet-eyed congressional budget hawks to a precious few.

But it's also a function of circumstances specific to this year. Legislative power is so finely balanced between Democrats and Republicans that the Bush administration will have to work hard to win votes for its priorities - notably, the tax cut - and such wooing often includes acceding to increases in lawmakers' favorite programs.

"Increases and earmarks, what you'd call 'pork barrel spending,' are the way you make things happen," says Stan Collender, a Fleishman-Hillard budget expert. "With these smaller [congressional] majorities, you're going to do more, not less, of that."

The White House released its five-inch-thick stack of detailed, blue budget books yesterday. The books constitute the fine print of the overall fiscal year 2002 budget plan Mr. Bush first unveiled in February.

In total, the budget proposes to spend $1.96 trillion. Thus, only a slight congressional increase in the plan would put the federal budget over the symbolic $2 trillion mark. The federal government first spent $1 trillion in 1987, under a previous president devoted to budget restraint, Ronald Reagan.

Bush's 2001 plan represents a total increase of 5.6 percent over the previous year. Take out Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlement programs, and the increase in "discretionary spending" falls to 4 percent.

Discretionary spending is an important measure of a president's fiscal resolve because it represents that portion of the budget over which any chief executive has the most control. Under the last Clinton-submitted budget, discretionary spending for the current fiscal year went up 8.7 percent.

Priorities, seen in fine print

In releasing the plan, the administration highlighted not the proposed cuts, but many of the budget's proposed increases.

In a brief Rose Garden appearance, the president noted that his first budget provides for a $21 million increase in food-safety programs, a $1 billion increase in educational Pell Grants for low-income students, and a $350 million increase in child-care funds.

The budget contains $67 million for a mentoring program to help kids whose parents are in prison, as well as $75 million to distribute gun locks to families, said Bush. It reduces "corporate subsidies," such as funding for the Export-Import Bank, while eliminating thousands of one-time earmarked projects, according to the administration.

"This budget funds our needs without the fat," said Bush.

Some front-line government departments are slated for large increases under the Bush plan. The Department of Education, for instance, is to get a 10.6 percent hike. The Department of Defense, which represents by far the largest portion of US discretionary spending, would receive a 4.5 percent increase.

Overall, however, the Bush budget proposes real reductions in 10 of the government's 25 major agencies.

The Departments of Agriculture and Transportation would take the biggest hits. Some of President Clinton's most cherished initiatives would be eliminated or scaled back, including programs to support doctor training at children's hospitals, to pay Russian nuclear scientists in an effort to combat nuclear proliferation, and to put upward of 150,000 police officers on the streets by 2005.

Furthermore, critics complain that Bush's claim that his budget increases discretionary spending by 4 percent is an exaggeration.

Most of that increase is devoted to defense, international affairs, and a new "emergency reserve" for big natural disasters, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

Add in an accounting device that makes education spending look larger than it really is, by shifting the fiscal year in which certain funds are counted, and the actual rise in spending is minuscule, critics say.

"Actual funding [increases] for domestic appropriated programs would be four-tenths of 1 percent," says Robert Greenstein, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities executive director. And that's before the budget-shrinking effects of inflation are accounted for, says Mr. Greenstein.

The Congress factor

Inevitably, Congress will significantly alter Bush's spending outline, as it has in virtually every year in the modern era. Last week, as part of its budget resolution, the Senate voted for an 8 percent increase in discretionary spending - double the Bush plan's stated figure.

The dynamic that seems set to play out this year was illustrated by Sen. James Jeffords (R) of Vermont, who balked at voting for Bush's tax cut without more money for special education.

"Ever since we've had a surplus, the average annual growth in spending has been 6 percent," says Mr. Collender. "The idea of bringing it to down to 4 percent ... it's just not going to happen."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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