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Published: Saturday, 5/13/2006

Big credit card in the sky

RAISING the federal debt limit used to be a big deal in Washington, but not anymore. The Republican Congress has made deficit spending almost as ho-hum - for its members, anyway - as another junket on the special-interest dime.

Put another way, the debt limit is on its way to a fifth increase since George W. Bush became president in 2001 on a pledge of fiscal responsibility. Mr. Bush, we found out too late, has never met a spending bill he wouldn't sign.

Not that anyone is the least bit surprised, but the $2.7 trillion federal budget moving through Congress includes a $653 billion boost in the debt limit, following close on the heels of another $653 billion increase just two months ago.

Assuming the budget measure passes, and there is no reason to believe it won't, the new borrowing limit will be $9.62 trillion (with a capital T). When Mr. Bush walked into the Oval Office after his inauguration a little over five years ago, it was $5.95 trillion. You don't need a doctorate in mathematics to know that's a 62 percent increase.

What formerly was an embarrassing dollar dance for lawmakers who preach frugality now is hardly noticed. In late 2002 the House adopted a rule that automatically puts a debt limit increase into budget bills.

As a result, there is less and less attention to the disturbing fact that a big chunk of everything the federal government spends is, in effect, charged to the Big Credit Card in the Sky, aka the federal debt.

Pusillanimous budgeting is nothing new, of course, but the numbers get larger and more overwhelming as Congress sweeps all prudence aside to authorize such deficit-raisers as renewal for two years of $70 billion in tax cuts on capital gains and dividend income.

Cleverly, the lubricant for the tax cut renewal comes from a companion provision to shield taxpayers for a while longer from the effects of the alternative minimum tax. The AMT was intended to keep the ultra-rich from escaping taxes entirely but it is not indexed to inflation and thus has been dipping progressively further into lower-bracket taxpayers.

Putting off the day of reckoning with the tax man is essentially the same strategy Mr. Bush has chosen to deal with this nation's ever-increasing expenses, pushed up sharply by his billion-dollar-a-day military forays in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How the whole mess will finally shake out is hard to guess, but we can safely predict that paying the piper will come long after he leaves Washington.



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