A federal budget is like a cargo ship. A ship leaves port loaded with goods; a budget leaves the White House loaded with goodies. Like a ship, the budget makes many stops before it reaches its final port. And when it arrives, it?s usually carrying different things than when it started.
That?s why caution is in order when it comes to President Bush?s proposed 2006 budget. It?s an excellent step in the right direction. If implemented, it actually would reduce non-defense discretionary spending for the first time in years. It also would kill off, or greatly reduce, some 150 wasteful or redundant programs. That alone would save $20 billion next year.
Plus, it would begin to address the even greater financial problems of entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicaid. At the same time, the budget would increase spending in critical areas, such as homeland security and the military. And it would make permanent the pro-growth tax cuts enacted during President Bush?s first term.
But now that this ship is underway, the difficult work of navigating safely begins.
Liberals lined up to condemn the budget as soon as it was released. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for example, claimed it ?is fiscally irresponsible, morally irresponsible and a failure of leadership.? That response was predictable. Yet the president?s Republican allies haven?t exactly come out in favor of his budget, either.
House leaders Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, described the plan as merely a ?starting point.? As if that signal wasn?t clear enough, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., of New Hampshire pointed out that lawmakers may like the ?concepts? of the budget, but ?we don?t have to follow those programs.?
Their message seems to be, ?Thank you, Mr. President. We?ll take it from here.? But this year, the White House shouldn?t let that happen. If it does, none of the proposed spending cuts are likely to happen.
With the usual budget process, the president proposes a spending plan in February. It goes to Congress, and lawmakers spend months working on it. Some time in the fall, the compromise budget appears. Congress passes it -- in recent years, often as a single spending bill. The president has no choice but to either sign the whole thing (even though it no longer resembles his original proposal) or veto it and risk another government shutdown.
Unfortunately, every program, no matter how small or wasteful, has at least one supporter on Capitol Hill. So if the president doesn?t fight for his planned spending cuts, some lawmaker will manage to slip them back into the budget, one by one.