WASHINGTON -- Anyone, said T.S. Eliot, could carve a goose, were it not for the bones. Anyone could write a sensible federal budget, were it not for the bones -- the sturdy skeleton of existing programs defended by muscular interests. In President Bush's struggle to carve the federal carcass, bet on the bones.
Not that his ``lean'' (his adjective) and ``austere'' (John McCain's) $2.57 trillion budget is anything of the sort. It proposes spending 38 percent more than the government was spending when Bush became president. It would slice off only thin slivers here and there: remember, entitlements and interest are two-thirds of the budget and discretionary domestic spending is just 17 percent. It calls for a 3.6 percent increase over last year's spending total. Discretionary spending unrelated to security is slated to decrease only 0.7 percent. The net cut of 1 percent of the Education Department's budget is a mere nick to a budget that has grown 40 percent under Bush.
The proposed cut in agriculture spending is supposed to illustrate the budget's austere leanness. Well.
For 10,000 years -- 100 centuries -- agriculture was what most people did. In the 20th century that changed, at least in developed countries, which is essentially why they are called developed. So why is America's 21st-century agriculture so absurdly -- so uniquely among all sectors of economic activity -- swaddled in government protections?
Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, notes that in the last two years agriculture subsidies, which you might think are supposed to cushion farms in hard times, increased 40 percent while farm income was doubling. The new budget's risible proposal -- a 9.6 percent cut -- is, in a dreary sense, a Republican improvement. In August 1986, at the Illinois State Fair, Ronald Reagan's 11-minute speech was interrupted 15 times by applause for boasts like this:
``No area of the budget, including defense, has grown as fast as our support of agriculture.'' And: ``This year alone we'll spend more on farm support programs ... than the total amount the last administration provided in all its four years.''
Today's president, the first since John Quincy Adams to serve a full term without vetoing anything, last week announced the limit of his tolerance: He vowed to veto a spending decrease. That is the unmistakable meaning of his statement that he would brook no changes in his prescription drug entitlement that by itself has an unfunded liability twice as large as the entire Social Security deficit.