‘Compassion’ Is Out the Window In GOP Budgets

Posted March 19, 2003 at 2:45pm

The stock market took a favorable bump as war with Iraq became a virtual certainty, but the war’s effects on the economy are likely to be negative, with the main burden borne by those least able to absorb it. [IMGCAP(1)]

President Bush refuses to tell Congress how much he expects the war to cost, the Republican Congress refuses to make an estimate on its own and yet the GOP wants to push ahead with $1.4 trillion in tax cuts skewed toward upper-income citizens, including an immediate $726 billion economic growth package.

Meanwhile, the administration proposes to hold down domestic spending — for health, education and the environment — to just a 4 percent increase.

The administration budget shows no end to deficits, with the Congressional Budget Office estimating a cumulative 10-year addition of $4.4 trillion to the national debt.

However, Republicans running the House and Senate Budget committees believe they have to show budgets balancing — in spite of the absence of a war estimate — and are using their own version of “fuzzy math” to do it.

The Senate budget goes into paper balance by failing to sustain beyond five years the levels of defense spending that Bush has projected. That means balance is achieved by guesswork that’s likely to be pure fiction.

The House, on the other hand, achieves alleged balance by cutting both appropriated domestic programs and entitlements by 1 percent below the Bush administration request.

In both chambers, Democrats are justifiably howling — at the size of the deficits, at the irresponsibility of cutting taxes in wartime, at the administration’s refusal to hand over a war estimate and at the potential bite into domestic programs.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (S.D.) was wrong to blame Bush, not Saddam Hussein and French President Jacques Chirac, for the collapse of pre-war diplomacy, but he is on the mark in criticizing Bush for withholding estimates of the war’s cost.

And House Budget Committee Democrats are on the mark in declaring that “both the House budget resolution and the president’s budget agree on the same single-minded purpose: subordinate all other priorities to additional lavish tax cuts as big as those passed two years ago.”

“But, these fiscally irresponsible tax cuts lead either to the skyrocketing debt and harmful program cuts in the president’s budget or to somewhat smaller deficits but far more severe program cuts in the House resolution — cuts that even many Republicans do not support.”

Indeed, a hardy band of moderate Republicans in both chambers is standing up to party leaders. Eleven House Republicans led by Rep. Mike Castle (Del.) wrote that “We can not support a budget resolution that reflects funding levels below the Bush administration’s request and that fails to meet the needs of our domestic priorities, while reducing taxes by $1.4 trillion.”

The Castle group’s refusal to support the original party budget — plus complaints from health care providers — apparently has reversed the GOP plan to impose cuts in Medicare.

The budget provided $400 billion for a prescription drug benefit for seniors, but contemplated cuts of $372 billion for existing Medicare services, which would reduce reimbursements to doctors and hospitals or force seniors to pay more for their coverage.

GOP leaders hastily decided to exempt Medicare — along with Social Security —from their budget-balancing plans — but not Medicaid, the health insurance program that covers 47 million poor Americans.

In fact, it appears that the GOP plans to stick with its plan to cut so-called “mandatory programs” by 1 percent — lifting the burden on politically potent seniors and dumping it onto politically weak poor people.

“Our biggest concern,” said one GOP leadership aide, “was the commercials that the provider groups would run” against the Medicare cuts.

When I observed that poor Medicaid recipients were in no position to mount an ad campaign, he responded, “There are a lot of examples of waste, fraud and abuse in the Medicaid program.”

It’s not clear that Medicaid cuts will end up being Congress’ chosen means of balancing the budget. But to the extent it is, it’s unconscionable — especially in view of the tax cuts the GOP plans to lard onto the wealthy.

What Congress ought to be doing — and may, if the Senate passes a proposal by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) — is to help the fiscally-strapped states bear their increased Medicaid costs.

But if Medicaid cuts are imposed, that will swell the ranks of the uninsured beyond the current, shameful level of 41 million, cause added cost-shifting that raises insurance rates for employers and force them to cut back on coverage.

All this adds up to the antithesis of “compassionate conservatism,” which increasingly looks like a costume that Bush dons for political purposes and not his true identity.

Republicans want to push through a budget resolution amid a wartime surge of patriotism without accounting for the costs, pay for the war in a separate supplemental appropriation and then pass Bush’s tax cuts when his popularity soars on favorable war news.

And, if the tax cuts produce prosperity, Bush will be on his way to re-election. But if all this is done on the backs of the poor, the “compassionate” aspect of his conservatism will be just a ruse.