According to the president's budget director, you can have your cake and eat it too. To top it off, Joshua Bolton says you can lose weight at the same time. In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, the head of the president's Office of Management and Budget praised the completion of the 2005 budget process by saying that Congress "stayed within budget limits and met key priorities," that they are making progress on budget deficits, and that they are doing this by "eliminating wasteful spending."
Is the Congress really meeting key priorities? They cut the National Science Foundation budget by over $100 million in the recently passed omnibus appropriations bill that the budget director praised. Low-income energy assistance is "$164 million short of what is needed to cover the anticipated 24 percent increase in home heating costs" according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. These are but two examples, and come next February, there will be dozens – if not hundreds – of additional cuts in the president's 2006 budget.
Are we making progress on deficits? The deficit was $413 billion for fiscal year 2004 – an increase over the prior year's deficit of $375 billion. Both of these deficits are at the bad end of an embarrassingly rapid swing away from the record surpluses of the late 1990s. The so-called improvement comes from a bit of accounting fiction – the deficit was lower than an inflated White House prediction from early 2004 – and is a "trust us, we're projecting improvement" kind of thing.
Can we solve the problem by eliminating waste? The budget director claims that this no-pain diet can be sustained by eliminating waste – in part through the president's "management agenda." Eliminating waste is of course a good idea, but the deficit is currently about the same size as the entire $388 billion omnibus bill that was just passed.
If you look out beyond the next 10 years or so, there will be virtually no money for anything other than national defense, Social Security, Medicare and interest payments. So, unless you think that national parks are a waste, that we don't need interstate highways, that student loans should be eliminated, that we should shut down the Department of Education, and close NASA, there will indeed be some pain. And this pain will show up in our nation's economic performance as our national human and physical infrastructure goes into decline.
But budget discipline requires sacrifice, right?
If the administration ever takes off their rosy glasses, we will likely be told that we need to make "tough choices" with the budget. However, the choices they offer will certainly not include any revenue increases – and thus not everyone will be asked to sacrifice equally.
To make their choices explicit, it's OK to cut research funding for the National Science Foundation, while just a couple months ago Congress managed to find over $100 billion worth of new tax breaks for corporations. We're being told to sacrifice student loans, and we do not have money for low-income heating assistance, but we can still phase in tax cuts that favor multimillionaires.
And somehow we're expected to buy the line that we now need to sacrifice, that we now need to exert some budget discipline?
What budget discipline should mean
The current budget and deficit situation did not occur accidentally. Tax changes that provided cuts for the wealthy and little to nothing for everyone else have caused revenue to decline and the deficit to explode. At just 16.2 percent of gross domestic product, federal revenue is at its lowest level since the 1950s.
If there are sacrifices that need to be made, let us share them together – not increase the tax giveaways for some while asking the rest of us to pick up the slack. Already, those at the very top of the income distribution got the bulk of benefit from recent tax changes – do they really need more? Budget discipline means discipline on all sides, on spending and on taxes – not partisan politics using "discipline" as an excuse to roll back society's gains.
Real discipline means living up to the responsibility to fund vital domestic priorities – everything from education to environmental protection, from health insurance to child nutrition. By failing to provide adequate financial support for our needs, we weaken our nation. The 1990s saw real budget discipline, with balanced budget rules and historic surpluses. We know it can be done.
It's time to tell the truth about our nation's finances – the president's policies do not cut the deficit in half. The president's proposals do not maintain current levels of services, let alone meet expanding needs. The president's tax ideas disproportionally benefit a select few. Congress, by following the current destructive policy path, is abandoning all pretenses of fiscal responsibility and budget discipline.
The budget director calls for "political courage" to cut spending even more. Congress should have the political courage to say no to the president's budget, and instead demand real fiscal responsibility.
John S. Irons is the associate director for tax and budget policy at the Center for American Progress.