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Surgical strike

Politics | President's budget applies the first knife domestic spending has felt in years

Issue: "Social Security breach," Feb. 19, 2005

If new cabinet members felt more than the usual butterflies during their first meeting with President Bush on Feb. 7, they had good reason. Mr. Bush used the West Wing photo op to promote his "lean" budget for 2006, vowing that discretionary spending next year would grow more slowly than the rate of inflation. In fact, domestic programs not related to national security or mandated by law will actually see a 1 percent decline if the president gets his way-something that hasn't happened since the Reagan administration.

From Margaret Spellings at Education to Donald Rumsfeld at Defense, Cabinet secretaries returned to their offices with grim news for the hordes of bureaucrats accustomed to ever-bigger budgets. Though the president has little say over congressionally mandated programs ranging from Medicare to the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, he applied the knife almost everywhere he could, requesting net decreases in discretionary funding for nine out of 15 Cabinet-level departments. ("Total outlays," the budget figure that includes mandatory spending, will continue to rise in most departments.)

"It's a budget that focuses on results," Mr. Bush told reporters after meeting with his Cabinet. "The taxpayers of America don't want us spending our money [on] something that's not achieving results."

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Among the programs not getting results, in the White House's view: subsidies for Amtrak, grants to help local communities hire police officers, efforts to provide federal housing to people with disabilities, and a rescue mission for the Hubble space telescope. In all, the president wants to eliminate or eviscerate 150 government programs.

While space telescopes may not generate much passion on Capitol Hill, other cuts will be met with stiff resistance. After 10 straight years of budget increases, for instance, the Education Department is slated for a 1 percent cut this year, eliciting howls of protest from Democratic lawmakers beholden to the teachers union.

Will Mr. Bush be able to impose spending restraint on a reluctant Congress? His record so far is not encouraging. During his first four years in office, the president allowed 10 out of 15 Cabinet budgets to increase at a rate faster than the growth of the Gross Domestic Product. And though he proposed cutting 65 government programs in last year's budget, only four actually got the ax, according to the House Appropriations Committee.

"These cuts are not deep enough to reverse the spending binge the president and Congress have embarked on the past four years," grumbled Steven Slivinski, director of budget studies at the Cato Institute.

"The cuts that Bush makes in domestic spending are not enough to compensate for the increases in other areas of the budget. Overall spending, including defense, will rise by 3.6 percent."

It's that massive defense spending that is driving the cuts elsewhere. Though Mr. Bush proposed to eliminate or delay billions of dollars worth of weapons systems, other categories of military spending-from housing to salaries-will see healthy increases. And those are just "normal" defense costs, not including the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. To continue the war effort, the administration intends to request an $81 billion "supplemental" that does not appear in the budget.

One other big-ticket item that didn't find its way into the budget: Social Security reform. A partial transition to private accounts would cost some $750 billion over 10 years, according to administration estimates.

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