When releasing his first budget this week, President Bush made it sound like a watershed event: "This budget offers a new vision for our nation," he proclaimed. "It also represents a new way of doing business in Washington, and a new way of thinking."
I guess Rep. Tom DeLay and Speaker Denny Hastert didn't get the "new way of doing business" memo.
According to complaints filed with the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department by Judicial Watch (and announced the day after Bush's "new vision" was unveiled), DeLay solicited potential donors with the opportunity to "be invited to meetings with top Bush administration officials, where your opinions on issues like tax reform will be heard."
For his part, Hastert dangled the promise of donors becoming "special advisors" on tax policy and being "introduced to the who's who in Washington" -- including Vice President Cheney and Bush budget director Mitch Daniels. No mention of whether that special (interest) blend of White House coffee would be served.
Indeed, this old way of doing business has been very much in bloom all over Washington this week. Every lobbyist on K Street -- and every member of Congress who has been on the receiving end of corporate largess -- is now fighting to keep the very "fat" that Bush claims has been taken out of the budget.
So has the White House really declared war on corporate welfare? To test the accuracy of Bush's boast that "this budget funds our needs without the fat," I decided to revisit the corporate "Dirty Dozen" and see how they were faring on the administration's promised cold-turkey diet.
The Dirty Dozen were 12 of the most galling government giveaways targeted back in 1997 by a broad-based alliance of activists and members of Congress calling themselves the Stop Corporate Welfare Coalition. Considering Bush's tough talk, I fully expected to find the Dozen laid out on the floor, eviscerated, their pork-plumped entrails strewn across the opened pages of his three-volume budget.
Instead, I discovered that most of the Dozen are doing just fine, thank you -- fat, sassy and continuing to gorge themselves at the public trough.
Take the Market Access Program, a pricey boondoggle that fritters away taxpayer dollars promoting the products of hard-luck cases such as Dole, Sunkist and Ocean Spray. Last month, word leaked out that MAP was in the White House's cross hairs, but someone must have called off the hit because, lo and behold, here it is alive and well -- and slated to get an additional $90 million next year.
But take heart, there has been a cosmetic change: The money no longer goes directly to the needy corporations but is first laundered through trade associations such as the National Watermelon Promotion Board, the American Peanut Council, the Catfish Institute and Asparagus USA.
Then there is the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, which has poured $1 billion into the pockets of needy, domestic automakers like Ford, General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler to develop a "Supercar." Although the eight-year effort has failed to put even a single vehicle, super or otherwise, on the road, Bush's budget ensures taxpayers will continue to be taken for a ride -- to the tune of about $200 million in 2002.
One of the dirtiest of the Dirty Dozen, the ironically named Clean Coal Technology Program, not only survived the chopping block but gets a major funding bump, earmarked to receive $2 billion over the next 10 years to continue to do what it's failed to do so far -- and what environmentalists contend cannot be done: produce coal that burns without releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide and other toxic chemicals.
But the coal industry gave $3.8 million to federal candidates in the last election, and unlike Wall Street, there is no bear market in Washington -- a $3.8 million investment begets a $2 billion return. Not bad.
In Bush's Utopian Beltway, his massive but "just right" tax cut would be accompanied by a "just right" spending increase of 4 percent and a principled elimination of all budgetary fat. But reality is not nearly so obliging: The Senate, including many Republicans, already voted to nearly double the increase in spending, corporate welfare is expected to cost the taxpayers $80 billion to $100 billion a year and lobbyists are fighting to put back even the little fat that has been liposuctioned from the budget.
The American Shipbuilding Association, for example, has gotten its friends in Congress -- including Sens. Trent Lott, Ted Stevens and John Breaux -- to intercede on its behalf to try to reinstate the federal loan guarantees given to purchasers of American-built oil tankers and cruise ships.
"When Republicans refuse to cut corporate welfare," Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, told me, "they expose themselves as fiscal hypocrites who only want to cut government programs that don't benefit their own donors. Some of the biggest Republican donors are the biggest recipients of unwarranted federal grants and subsidies."
So, far from there having been a reordering of the nation's priorities, we still have the same old pecking order. Corporate welfare continues to ride first class on the government gravy train while, at the very moment a recession looms, even temporary welfare assistance for needy families has been given the boot. The president's first budget proves that Aid to Dependent Corporations is a lot more resilient than Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Too bad the parents couldn't afford to respond to DeLay and Hastert's kind invitation to hobnob with Washington's who's who and offer their "special advice" on the president's budget.