At a White House meeting in November 2002, President Bush asked his staff: "What are we doing on compassion?" The president got no response but silence, recalls former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, and he quickly dropped the subject.
Now we are learning the true and profoundly dismaying answer to that question.
What the Bush administration has been "doing on compassion" is to play merciful and bountiful at political photo opportunities while concocting plans for devastating budget cuts and irresponsible tax cuts. As Bush himself warned his advisors at the same meeting, he didn't want to "slam the door in the third quarter of 2004," meaning in the months before Election Day. But behind closed doors and on Capitol Hill, he and his Republican allies are fashioning policies that reserve whatever compassion they can afford for those least in need.
According to a report in Thursday's Washington Post, the White House budget office recently issued guidelines to federal agencies currently planning for the 2006 budget. Those guidelines require substantial spending cuts for almost all domestic programs aside from homeland security, although that supposed Republican priority will be cut as well. Spending on education, so often promoted by Bush as the hallmark of his domestic agenda, would nearly eliminate last year's $1.7 billion increase. The highly successful Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program would lose more than $100 million, leaving many poor families without assistance. Head Start, another successful program that provides early childhood education to deprived children, is slated to lose $177 million, or 2.5 percent of its total budget.
With the cool cynicism that is their trademark, however, Bush and members of his Cabinet pretend to support such "compassionate" programs on the campaign trail even as they continue to attempt to cut those same budget items. As the New York Times noted on May 19, "many administration officials are taking credit for spreading largess through programs that President Bush tried to eliminate or to cut sharply."
So the White House regularly trumpets generous grants to help insure the uninsured, to provide heart defibrillators, to improve rural health care and to train minority physicians and dentists -- without acknowledging that President Bush sought to slash or eliminate those same programs in his last budget, and that his upcoming budgets will neuter those programs and many more.
Bush's unguarded remark about the third quarter of 2004 takes on added meaning when next year's fiscal plans are contrasted with the election-year budget. The 2005 budget provides increases in spending for popular programs such as education and nutrition. Next year, after the election, the White House will announce that they must be cut severely in the 2006 budget. This year, the administration increased spending on veterans by $519 million. In 2006, under the budget plan obtained by the Washington Post, it will cut that amount by $910 million -- clawing back the previous increase and almost $400 million more.
Substantial cuts are also contemplated for the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Justice Department's police assistance and crime prevention programs, the Small Business Administration, the Social Security Administration and every other aspect of federal activity that comes under the wonkish rubric of "domestic discretionary spending."
In a modern society, such federal spending finances crucial functions of government. But the budget devised by the administration's conservative extremists expresses their reflexive disdain for the public sector. As sharp and damaging as the reductions contemplated for the 2006 budget may seem, however, they are merely a sample of what Republicans plan for the future if they maintain monopoly power in Washington. Remember when Newt Gingrich's "revolutionaries" shut down the federal government during a budget dispute with President Clinton? That remains the radical goal of the "compassionate conservatives" in the White House and on Capitol Hill.
Dismantling -- or decimating -- government is Bush's answer to the question that has been puzzling economists: How will the Republicans control their exploding deficits while legislating permanent tax cuts and continuing to fund war, defense and security increases, as well as nondiscretionary entitlements such as Social Security? The president's unshakeable commitment to enormous permanent tax cuts leaves "> EPI graphs.)
Counting all the hidden expenses -- such as inevitable changes in the alternative minimum tax -- the price of making Bush's cuts permanent will rise to a trillion dollars over the coming decade. Finding the money to fund Medicare and other entitlements under such enforced scarcity will present an enormous challenge. There will be little money left, if any, for such "frills" as scientific research, child care, libraries, the arts and the environment.
Many of us have always known that compassionate conservatism was a swindle. What we are learning now is how expensive, how destructive and how wildly unfair that swindle may prove to be.