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Published: 9/20/2004

The deficit downpour

ONLY in a presidential election year could a record $422 billion federal budget deficit be deemed good news. But that's precisely the spin President Bush and his cohorts are putting on this onrushing fiscal train wreck.

True, the Congressional Budget Office's latest estimate of this year's deficit is $56 billion less than a previous estimate, but that's only because Republican appointees in that agency had inflated the earlier number to make it look like the economy is headed in the right direction.

What's really happening is that spending for homeland security and the war in Iraq is exploding, and President Bush has done nothing to rein in unfettered spending on domestic programs by his fellow Republicans in Congress.

Moreover, Mr. Bush's tax cuts have delivered only a fraction of the new jobs the administration promised by this fall. Although the administration has crowed about the latest jobs figures, the gains are barely enough to keep up with new entrants into the job market.

Tim Adams, policy director for the Bush campaign, declared that the latest lower deficit number is "a sign of the economic growth that is a result of President Bush's leadership on tax relief."

But down in Texas, they have a colorful description for that kind of misleading rhetoric, which must be cleaned up for a family newspaper. In the argot of Mr. Bush's home state, Mr. Adams is "[urinating] on your boots and telling you it's raining."

Not even the CBO director, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former White House economist under Mr. Bush, could muster much partisan enthusiasm, particularly because his own numbers crunchers predict deficits piling up to $2.3 trillion over the next decade.

"This is a fiscal situation in which we cannot rely on economic growth to cause deficits to disappear," Mr. Holtz-Eakin conceded. "The central path of the budgetary outlook will be dictated by policy choices."

If the President stays the course with continued military conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, and who knows where else, and fails to muster the courage to veto any domestic spending bills, those policy choices only get worse. The White House pledge to cut the deficit in half over five years is a pipe dream, even according to the CBO's optimistic figures.

That's because the estimates assume that the Bush tax cuts will expire by 2011. If Mr. Bush and Republican leaders keep their vow to make the cuts permanent, the 10-year deficit forecast rises to $3.6 trillion. In 2014, the deficit would be $440 billion - a far cry from the picture painted by Mr. Bush and others on the campaign trail.

So far, neither Mr. Bush nor his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, have indicated in any realistic fashion how they would pay for the promises they're making. But it's clear that four more years of the administration's "no-tax and spend" policies will raise the likelihood that taxpayers will be engulfed by a deluge of budget deficits for years to come.



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