The Bush Fall Agenda: The Coming Washington Food Fight

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Ready for a rumble: Bush

Just as his aides promised, George W. Bush’s speech Wednesday was the White House’s "table-setter" for the September budget battle. And just as this year’s straitened fiscal circumstances would demand of any good Republican president, Bush left all the dieting to Congress.

Here’s the problem: Using different accounting and some different assumptions than the Office of Management and Budget used last week in announcing that the budget was balanced and the Social Security "lock box" was safe, the Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday offered a rather more pessimistic assessment: By October that "lock box" will be $9 billion in the red. And that’s if the government doesn’t spend any more than planned for the rest of this — a dubious assumption at this point.

So Bush, on the last day of his 26-day "working vacation," is keeping the menu short. Tax cuts. Defense. Education. Anything else is pork, and if that "lock box" is hanging open at the end of the day, he’ll be blaming two things — the economy and the Democrats.

The Bush menu

Tax cuts? The broccoli. Choke ‘em down, they’re good for the economy. Bush again touted his $1.3 trillion tax cut as well-timed fiscal stimulus for a U.S. economy mired in a slowdown. (A slowdown "that started last year," as Bush hastens to remind us.) Repealing it — even, presumably, the parts that won’t kick in until 2004 and beyond — "would be an anchor on our economy, and I assure you I won’t allow it."

That $18 billion in increased military spending? Prime rib. Mmm. Voters love it. "The biggest increase in military spending since Ronald Reagan was commander-in-chief," Bush bragged to a very receptive gathering of the American Legion in San Antonio. "I will not permit any course that leaves America undefended." And you know that includes missile defense, some pay raises and increased health benefits for military folk, and "building the military of the future."

Education? The cool, cool glass of chocolate milk. Gotta have increases for education — it’s the center-left version of the military, and a great way to confuse the Democrats with kindness. "We may have different agendas in Washington, but we all have the same basic obligations," Bush said. "Let us put education and national defense at the first of the line, not at the last."

The leftovers

The Democrats have a different list of "spending priorities," of course, but because of the nature of the Washington budget game — the President proposes, Congress disposes — and because money is so tight, they’re more likely to wage this war in the negative. The Dems' message: The tax cut busted the budget. Missile defense busted the budget. Bush busted the budget — and broke into the "lock box."

"This is their spending plan. This is their tax plan. They have created this problem," said Senate Budget Committee chairman Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) of the White House. "They have an obligation to tell us — for example, when the president asks for $18 billion more for defense next year — how is he going to pay for it?"

Democrats will be out to create another choice, not between pork and missile defense (in the budgetary sense, nobody’s for the other white meat) but between items on Bush’s list — say, missile defense and the tax cut — that, since they can no longer repeal with a veto in the White House, they can at least complain shrilly about. And of course both sides will be accusing the other’s lock-box-raiders of "neglecting our nation’s seniors." Which neither side is actually doing — Social Security payouts are safe for at least a decade.

Check, please

So who gets stuck with the bill? With the economy making an all-too-compelling case for the kind of fiscal stimulus that Bush stumbled into this spring, the Democrats won’t come near an actual tax cut repeal; increases for education and the military may be too broadly popular to be demonized successfully.

On the other hand, however enthused congressional Republicans say they are about their fiscal straitjacket — "the budget is tight, and that is exactly where we want it to be and where we need it to be," says House Budget Committee chairman Jim Nussle — congressmen are congressmen, and swallowing bitter political pills in the name of fiscal discipline has never been either party’s strong suit.

And so, barring a fiscal belt-tightening miracle the likes of which Washington has rarely seen, the Social Security surplus will indeed be invaded this fall, to no economic effect. And though both sides will be responsible, Democrats will blame Bush and his tax cut, and Bush will blame Democrats and their spending.

And it’ll all be just an appetizer for next year, when slowdown (it’s not going away, folks) digs even deeper into the surplus and Bush’s political shopping list gets even longer, and the midterms make things really interesting.