President Bush remains stuck in the bind between his ideologically driven desire to improve the economy by cutting taxes and the enormous costs of war and disaster relief. So this week he sent Congress a budget that seeks to restart his domestic agenda without spending lavishly on it.
Bush's $2.77 trillion budget -- which doesn't actually include all he wants to spend on defense and security -- will send the deficit to record levels, even by White House estimates. Independent appraisals put that number far higher and rightly question the president's claim that America will cut the deficit in half by the time his term is over.
Here's the bottom line: For the budget year that starts Oct. 1, Bush expects the federal government to take in $2.416 trillion and he wants to spend a minimum of $2.77 trillion. That's a one-year deficit of $354 billion.
Without cost-cutting offsets, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, the president's plea to make his earlier tax cuts permanent would deprive the government of $2.8 trillion in revenues over the next decade and add another $486 billion in interest. The analysis says that in the decade after that "deficits will reach or approach unsustainable levels as the number of baby boomers who have reached retirement age mounts and health care and pension costs for these individuals grow."
The White House, of course, is indeed trying to cut spending to offset those revenue losses. Last year, the president won about 40 percent of the cuts he wanted in 154 programs, saving about $6.5 billion. This year he wants $14.5 billion in cuts to 141 programs, about a third of them in education. Congress just passed a $39.5 billion trim for the current budget and won't be happy to have to visit the same targets again. They include even deeper cuts in Medicare and a substantial cut for the already overextended Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp.
Overall, the president has submitted a relatively austere budget that increases federal spending at about the expected rate of inflation and does not raise taxes. But in so doing, he makes it again clear the high costs of war and tax cuts will be borne largely by middle-class taxpayers and the poor who need services. Even at that, the American government still is spending more than it makes, and deferring payment problems to an economically questionable future.