The president’s budget is set to be released sometime today. As details have started to emerge, every indication is that it will be bad. Very bad. There will likely be numerous cuts to a variety of investments and services, many of which will have dire consequences for the Americans who rely on them. Overall, the cuts will weaken our nation and our economy.
"America’s prosperity requires restraining the spending appetite of the federal government. I welcome the bipartisan enthusiasm for spending discipline."
– George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, 2/2/05
The president makes it seem like we can just slip by with a little adjustment—the same way you might suck in your stomach to get that extra notch tighter on your belt. It might be slightly uncomfortable, but it will make you look better for a little while and won’t cause any permanent harm.
Unfortunately, the problem is much bigger than that: four years of fiscal mismanagement have led to massive deficits and too little revenue. (See "A Note on Budget Deficits.") This year’s budget is likely to continue that mismanagement by focusing on the wrong priorities and making the wrong choices for America. Many conservatives view this as the year to finally launch an all-out attack on non-defense spending, with nothing off limits, and to finally gut the very services that most Americans regard as vital to a strong and successful nation. Furthermore, the president and Congress will make it seem like we have no choice but to accept the course laid out in the budget—that we have to make these adjustments.
• For specifics on what to watch out for, see "Making the Wrong Choices: The 2006 Budget."
Since many of these investments in our fellow citizens are popular, it’s hard for the president to attack them directly. Instead, the administration talks incessantly about "spending discipline" and "holding down the rate of growth." (See "A Note on Inflation and the Budget.") What we will actually see are some direct cuts, along with a variety of Trojan horses being used to sneak cuts in through the back door under the guise of "budget process." For example, federal services will be turned into block grants and responsibility shifted to states, before these programs are slashed down the road. Congressional rules will be distorted to push through bad policy. Overall limits will be imposed so that everyone can pretend that the resulting cuts will be painless.
Think abut this: after four years of a largely successful conservative strategy of "a tax cut a year," the budget this year will apparently not propose any new tax changes beyond extending already enacted laws. Why the change in strategy? The administration is afraid of the juxtaposition of cuts in investments and services with yet another tax cut for the rich. Their goal, along with their right-wing and Congressional allies, will be to use the deficit to attack the government and the services it provides without reminding everyone of what got us into this situation in the first place. They hope that we will forget that total federal revenue is at its lowest level in half a century. They hope that we will forget that tax cuts for the wealthy — which did not effectively stimulate the economy — are still on their way.
In short, they hope that the American people forget that they still have a choice.
But we do. We have a choice between tax cuts for the rich and fully funding early childhood education. We have a choice between removing taxes on accumulated wealth and funding job training. We have a choice between truly saving Social Security and buying into an expensive, untested privatization scheme. (For two examples of tax cuts that benefit only the wealthy, but will cost tens of billions of dollars, see this report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)
There is a better way. Our nation deserves an honest budget that the American people can get behind. Together we can build and invest in America’s future, and provide everyone with an opportunity to succeed. We need not accept the gloomy conservative assessment about what we can accomplish as a nation. We can look towards the future and create a sound economy that benefits everyone. We have a choice; our lawmakers have a choice. We should make the right choices for our nation, not those that will be in the president’s 2006 budget.
John Irons is the associate director for tax and budget policy at the Center for American Progress.