Timing of Bush's Budget Likely to Increase the Talk of Pork

  • Share
  • Read Later

Copies of the budget at the Federal Printing Office in Washington, D.C.

The fact that his $1.6 trillion tax cut staggered out of the Senate on Friday missing about $400 billion isn't changing George W. Bush's bid-high-and-fight-the-rear-guard strategy on matters budgetary. Bush opened Round Two of this year's budget battle Monday by delivering the fleshed-out version of his $1.96 trillion budget for 2002 exactly as promised: as an uncompromising crash diet for pork, federal subsidies and Clinton-holdover programs that would limit future spending increases to 4 percent.

And the fact that senators and congressmen were all back in their home states to start their two-week Easter recess isn't changing the fact that Bush's budget will spark a battle royal that will put his tax cut in a fresh round of danger. In fact, it's probably going to make it worse.

"Washington is known for its pork. This budget funds our needs without the fat," Bush said in a message accompanying his budget. But Bush's low-fat diet doesn't just hit Congress at home in Washington (i.e., appropriations, which lawmakers have always considered their most sacred right); for the next two weeks it'll be hitting them where they actually live, right as they stand among the very people (and their lobbyists) who sent them to the District in the first place.

A taste for cutting pork

Example: Bush is proposing the elimination of federal loan guarantees for people who buy commercial vessels like oil tankers and cruise ships built in American shipyards, calling them unnecessary subsidies.

The American Shipbuilding Association, however, doesn't like to call them subsidies, and is determined to get its dough. It has lined up support from coastal-state Republicans, from Majority Leader Trent Lott (from Mississippi) to Appropriations Committee czar Ted Stevens (from Alaska). Democrat John B. Breaux (from Louisiana) recently wrote Bush that the guarantees should in fact be tripled, to $100 million. Lott cosigned.

Multiply this tug-of-war by oh, a hundred, and you get an idea of what Bush is up against. Republicans may want to roll back the Clinton years as badly as Bush, but they'll be a lot less eager to roll back the money the Clinton-era budgets sent their way. (Discretionary spending in fiscal 2001 alone was up 8.6 percent from the year before, and annual increases never dipped below 6 percent). And Democrats will be additionally eager to protect their purses, seeing in Bush's proposed curbs — from shaving $145 million off the $1 billion Clinton favorite, Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), to trimming $35 million from a $235 million program for training doctors at children's hospitals — as more feel-good reasons to attack the tax cut.

Pressure to bring home the bacon

"When people see the budget, they're going to say, 'Oh, my God, I wanted a tax cut, but I didn't know what you were going to do to health care and to Medicare and national defense,'" Breaux said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday. And he's a centrist — wait until Gephardt and Daschle put in their 10 cents.

Until now, Bush has been pitching tax cuts, tax cuts and the occasional spending increase — in education, mostly, and the military — as the defining aspects of his budget. Now it'll be all about the cutbacks.

He wants to cut "corporate welfare," but he'll run into the Big Business lobby there (place your bets on that one). He wants to leave room for his $1.6 trillion tax cut — Republicans are bragging they'll have most of that $400 billion back in the plan by May — but he'll be up against not only locality-driven pork, which will be foremost on lawmakers' minds this week, but also government programs that many people believe actually do some good. And in trying to restrain "recent explosive growth in discretionary spending" by cutting "unjustified programs, excessive programs, duplicative programs and programs that have completed their mission," he'll find that every program has a congressman, a lobbyist and a constituency who hold it dear.

And two weeks spent away from the Washington office, surrounded by lobbyists and local constituents for whom "pork" is food on the table, is only going to increase lawmakers' impulse to protect themselves by continuing to bring home the bacon.