Welcome to the budget fight

Conservative fears that President Bush might go back on his rhetorical recognition last year that he ought to do more to curb federal spending are receding in the face of the 2006 budget sent to Congress this week. In fact, however, while small-government conservatives around the country are heartened by the president’s apparent willingness to join their ranks, they fear that many ostensibly conservative GOP lawmakers are likely to head for the tall grass when they get into the details. The addiction to pork, after all, is no respecter of party or ideology. Every federal program has a protector in Congress, and many, if not most, of those who will fight to keep the programs the president would scrap will be members of his own party.

Conservative fears that President Bush might go back on his rhetorical recognition last year that he ought to do more to curb federal spending are receding in the face of the 2006 budget sent to Congress this week.

In fact, however, while small-government conservatives around the country are heartened by the president’s apparent willingness to join their ranks, they fear that many ostensibly conservative GOP lawmakers are likely to head for the tall grass when they get into the details. The addiction to pork, after all, is no respecter of party or ideology. Every federal program has a protector in Congress, and many, if not most, of those who will fight to keep the programs the president would scrap will be members of his own party.

Deficit hawks, supply-siders and moderates alike, for example, will whine like stuck pigs at the decision to cut back on or eliminate weapons systems produced in their districts and states, while those with large agricultural constituencies are already suggesting that there must be other ways than “going after farmers” to cut spending and the deficit.

Still, the president seems serious. He and his administration perhaps understandably let things slip a bit as he focused on fighting terrorism after Sept. 11 and contributed to the overall problem with a prescription-drug program that will generate tens of billions in “mandatory” spending that might better have been avoided. But now he wants to do something about the problem and should be applauded for stepping forward.

What’s more, the folks in the White House and the Office of Management and Budget have approached the problem rationally. During Bush’s first term, they began evaluating programs on the basis of whether they actually work, what they deliver for their cost and whether they duplicate other state or federal programs that might be doing a better job. As a result, they have targeted something like 150 programs that, in their view, don’t measure up to their promise for cuts or outright extinction.

Talk, though, is cheap. Actually making the cuts he seeks is going to be tough, but it’s a fight worth fighting. Some might have targeted different programs, and I have a few additional ones that I would add to his list, but, for now, I’m ready to join in even a limited war on runaway government.

The problem he faces is that federal spending, whether productive or not, generates its own universe of supporters and beneficiaries who are prepared to fight to the bitter end for its continuation. Each of these programs is in the budget because somebody in Congress (or in a previous administration) believed it worthwhile and will fight for its survival.

The political reality, however, is that Bush’s opponents on the left have assaulted him on an almost daily basis for his supposed “insensitivity” to budget deficits and have been demanding that he do “something” to eliminate them. What they would have him do, of course, is join them in their desire to tax the American people at higher and higher rates not merely to reduce the deficit but to finance higher and higher spending.

Well, they got part of what they wished for: They have his attention. But he recognizes that deficits are but a symptom of the real problems we face. They are generated, after all, when government spends more than it takes in.

The idea of simply raising taxes isn’t very politically attractive even to most Democrats, so they usually couple it with both a nod toward deficit reduction and proposals for new spending. The current president’s father fell for that one and found that their interest was not in budget restraint but in more spending and bigger government — a lesson that one suspects has not been lost on the current occupant of the White House.

Cutting spending is tougher here in Washington than among most voters outside this town for the simple reason that, while each of the programs the president is targeting has supporters and friends here, most voters favor smaller government and deficits and don’t want their taxes to be raised. It is, of course, also true, as his critics so often note, that Americans do want certain things from government. But the day when people were willing simply to equate the amount a politician was willing to spend on defense or farmers or education as the sole evidence of his or her belief in protecting us, promoting agriculture or improving education is long past.

Recent polls show that most Americans are concerned about spending but doubt if Bush can do anything about it. He’s proved the common wisdom wrong before, however, and may be in a position to do it again.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).

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