"Compassionate conservatism," R.I.P.

Bush's budget barely cuts his vast deficit -- and the people it hurts worst are the poorest Americans.

Published February 11, 2005 8:27PM (EST)

"I am a fiscal conservative," declared George W. Bush in 1999, when he first presented himself as a candidate for president of the United States. "And I am a compassionate conservative." The $2.5 trillion budget Bush sent to Congress last week shows once again that he is neither.

In his 2006 budget, the president demands domestic spending cuts that permanently undercut any pretense of "compassion." Exactly how much his cuts would injure the needy, the young and the elderly isn't completely clear because the numbers provided by the White House aren't fully specific -- particularly in the "out years" after 2006. Also missing from the charts and graphs provided by the president are the tens of billions in "supplemental" expenses incurred in Afghanistan and Iraq, the hundreds of billions he wants to spend on privatizing Social Security, and the true trillion-dollar cost of his Medicare prescription-drug program.

What the budget does seem to show, however, is a series of sharp reductions in funding for programs such as housing assistance, veterans health benefits, food stamps and home heating aid. This stinginess toward the least fortunate is highlighted by Bush's insistence on preserving every penny of tax cuts for the fattest and happiest.

Speaking last week at the Detroit Economic Club -- in a city whose economic devastation he has done nothing to relieve -- the president offered all the usual, useless Bush bromides. His speech lauded a local "VIP" businessman who "mentors" the children of incarcerated parents, without mentioning that his budget will deprive many of those same kids of child care, food stamps and better schools. (God bless the child who's got to survive on the charity of Bush's friends.) He went on to reassure the well-heeled audience that they will keep their tax cuts and get even more, while promising to enforce "real budget discipline" and "difficult choices" in federal spending.

They applauded, of course.

Yet even Bush's cruelest cuts will achieve no meaningful reduction in the half-trillion-dollar federal deficits created by his tax cuts and his elective war. Cutting "domestic discretionary programs" will inflict considerable suffering on poor people, but won't improve the fiscal deficit at all. Although the proposed reductions are large enough to hurt those who depend on the programs he wants to reduce or eliminate, they still represent a tiny proportion of federal spending.

From an economic perspective, in other words, the Bush budget is practically meaningless, with political symbolism its only real purpose. It permits the president to pose as a zealous budgetary hawk without changing his fiscally ruinous policies. Like his Social Security scheme and his previous budget projections, it is a financial sham.

The Bush budget cuts would make no fiscal difference because the nation's current (and future) deficits have little or nothing to do with domestic spending. The deficits have grown directly from Bush's huge, skewed tax cuts.

The arithmetic proving that assertion is simple. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the entire cost of programs enacted since the beginning of 2001 will amount to $539 billion this year, or slightly more than the actual deficit. Domestic discretionary spending (apart from homeland security, which Bush plans to increase) accounts for only 7 percent of that total, or $37 billion.

By contrast, the tax cuts legislated since Year One of the Bush presidency represent a cost of about $259 billion -- or about half of this year's deficit. Even the White House masters of fuzzy math should be able to understand the rather substantial difference between 7 percent and 48 percent.

Not all of Bush's proposals are mean-spirited or wrongheaded, although he has yet to prove that the programs he wants to kill or cut are "ineffective." And surely there are farm subsidies and other federal programs that merit cutting. But the weight of this budget falls most heavily on working families, not rich farmers.

Bush's real problem is ideological and political. He and his advisors know that reducing the deficit will be impossible without canceling the most irresponsible and unfair of his tax cuts. Until he confronts that unpleasant reality, his phony figures will injure the poor without achieving fiscal balance.

The president must always pretend to care about fiscal responsibility, but perhaps he will drop "compassionate conservative" from his political vocabulary. From now on that indecent phrase can only embarrass him.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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