Congressional Democrats gave President Bush’s proposed $3.1 trillion budget a predictably cold reception and Republicans weren’t particularly warm, either.
The budget, for the federal fiscal year starting Oct. 1, is where the president states his goals for that year and assigns his priorities to them by the amount of money he is willing to spend.
In an election year, the goals and priorities of an outgoing president are not necessarily those of a Congress with the elections on its mind. This budget is a starting point for long and contentious negotiations that very likely may not be resolved by the time the November election rolls around.
The budget is heavily weighted toward defense, a 7 percent increase, and homeland security, an 11 percent increase, and offers a freeze or actual cut for most everything else, including spending on health and education.
The White House fudges on the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking only for $70 billion as an “emergency allowance” or “bridge fund” to fund the fighting through the early months of fiscal 2009. Congress is bracing for him to come back before he leaves office to ask for another $100 billion or more.
Even with the freeze on non-defense spending, the Bush budget still calls for federal deficits of $410 billion this year and $407 billion in 2009, the second- and third-highest deficits on record, the all-time record being $413 billion in 2004.
Red ink notwithstanding, Bush is still calling for a budget in surplus by 2012. But attaining that goal calls for a certain willing suspension of disbelief. It assumes that there will be no further spending on the war than the $70 billion he’s already asking for and it assumes that Congress will make no further fixes in the alternative minimum tax. And Bush assumes balance will be achieved despite the $635 billion cost over five years of making his tax cuts permanent.
If we’re in store for rough economic times this year, the White House doesn’t see them continuing into next. The president’s economic assumptions foresee an unemployment rate of 4.9 percent, inflation at 2.1 percent, low interest rates and economic growth of 3 percent, a good but not exceptional year.
Bush knows full well that large parts of his budget are politically unsustainable, but he also knows lawmakers will have to sweat to change them. He can view this with a certain detachment since four months into the budget year he’ll be back in Crawford, Texas.