How do you tell when a politician is serious about the federal budget?
Not sure. Haven’t seen that in quite a while.
But I do know lack of seriousness when I see it. In the first days of the new year, President George W. Bush promised “to produce a plan to balance the federal budget in five years.” Five years. Hmmm. Where have we heard that before?
He challenged Congress to “slash” pet projects, too.
Coming from someone who aims to balance the budget only after he’s out of office, that’s sure some challenge.
According to the Washington Post, the president’s announcement was greeted by Democrats as “me-tooism.” Exactly. Our allegedly conservative prez has offered nothing that a brain-addled supporter of Big Government couldn’t offer, and hasn’t offered a dozen times before.
What our prez proposed? Standard blather. Read it like this: “Whatever we do, let’s put off the unpleasant balancing part of budgeting until we’re out of office!”
This might mean something to Congress, were our reps’ terms limited. But they aren’t, so putting off till tomorrow actually means putting off forever.
Five years! You might as well talk about the political responsibility of Stalin’s Five Year Plans!
The Bush plan — or should we call it the Democrat Plan? — is old hat. We’ve heard it all before. If we just wait long enough, a tax cut, or pump priming from the Fed, or tax increase (Dem version) or what-have-you, will jump start the economy so that the revenues will rise and budgets be met.
Not offered? Real budget cuts. For to suggest that any current mission of government can be reduced in any way is anathema to the politicians’ self-image as wizards, saviors. Their utopia always requires another program, more governmental power, additional millions or billions or trillions in taxes. The politicians’ power is in what government does . . . and spends.
No one has suggested a power cut. (Well, I have.)
Strangely, after all we’ve heard about a deep partisan divide, the Washington Post reported:
Appearing in the Rose Garden with his Cabinet, Bush said he has been encouraged by meetings with Democrats and thinks they can reach common ground on spending issues that have bitterly divided them for six years.
And white is black, night is day, peace is war, and Democrats are Repub- . . . oops.
You see, the truth of the matter is that Democrats and Republicans may have been bitterly at odds, but not really on budgetary grounds. Had the Democrats gotten their way these past six years, they would have spent just as much as the Republicans. Probably more. What complaints can they really make about Republican spending? That it has been misdirected? Maybe. But not that it has been too much. They only talk like this when running for office. Fiscal responsibility is something Democrats would love to steal from Republicans, as a stalking horse. But once the horse is in the city walls, would the Democrats be any more likely than Republicans actually to prove their dedication to fiscal responsibility?
The bitterness has been over who spends, not how much.
True, there is something Americans love about “divided government”: one party in control of the White House, another party in control of Congress. Not long ago, for the only time in my lifetime, we had a balanced budget (well, a darn good likeness, farded up by some items kept off-budget.)
That was under a Democratic presidency and a Republican-led Congress. But what signal are we getting that the roles, reversed, will play much better?
Well, if we are to rely on Bush as the brake, then it doesn’t look so good. He’s been seriously co-dependent with Congress. His praise of Democrats for a moratorium on earmarks was, well, nice. But it means nothing if Democrats don’t abide by their self-imposed restrictions. (Which I’d take bets on, uh, were it legal.) And it means nothing if Bush won’t bare his teeth a little.
After all, Bush could have stopped earmarks years ago. The simple truth is that he can take matters into his own hands. He has the constitutional power.
Here’s what he can do. A bill comes across his desk. He looks it over. Some great stuff in it, and some nonsense as well. He really wants the great stuff, but hey: you can’t have everything. He notices, buried here and there, little provisions that have little to do with the national interest, much less the federal government’s constitutional authority. Bike parks. Indoor rain forests. Training programs for unemployed elves. That kind of thing. “Aha!” he says. “Earmarks! I know what to do.”
And he takes out his big rubber stamp, and stamps the bill in red: VETO.
Congress then can take out the earmarks and send the bill back to him. Or, if Congress really wants to play rough, it can muster up the numbers to over-ride his veto.
My, that would put everything out in the open, wouldn’t it? The Democrats would really have to show which side they are on. (And Republicans in Congress, too.) Responsible governing or special-interest appeasement?
This would be a good place to put the divide in divided government! How bitter it would be depends on how frustrated and ashamed of themselves his opposition would get, trying to muster up the courage to stick by their earmarks (or other follies) in the face of principled opposition in the White House.
Unfortunately, thus far Mr. Bush has sidestepped this whole issue. Instead of stealing himself up to his constitutionally appointed task, he harped about the line-item veto again.
He has veto power now. He wants — as so many presidents have wanted — the right to veto specific provisions of each bill. Sign on to what he likes, mark out those portions he doesn’t like.
Alas, this is a constitutional dead issue, barring an amendment. Which, after pigs fly, might happen as part of a five-year plan.
Bush has to bite the bullet. Sometimes you have to stick to your guns.
Frequent use of the veto would be a markedly different way to play the political game, that’s for sure. He’s certainly not used to it. Bush’s “management style” has been “to work with Congress.” He’s used his veto, what, one time? Sheesh. The mess of our current budget can be laid as much at his feet as the outgoing majority’s. His style has proven woefully ineffective.
He should admit it. Atone for his sins. Pay for his error. Do the right thing.
Yes, Mr. President. There’s only one way for you to pull your failing presidency back from the brink: Stand up to Congress.
Show them — and all Americans — Mr. Veto.
It’s a better nickname than “Dubbya” or “Shrub.” It’s one for the history books.
And forget your five-year plan: that’s an idea for the dustbin of history.
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