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Published: Friday, 2/9/2007

Guns and butter

IT'S HARD to tell if President Bush's top priority in his 2008 federal budget proposal is war or tax cuts, but the overall goal is clear: Left to his own devices, Mr. Bush would balance the budget at the expense of America's most vulnerable citizens - the poor and the elderly who are sick.

Congress - the new Democratic majority on Capitol Hill - shouldn't let him get away with it.

The President's budget plan revives a classic debate from the 1960s over whether the nation can afford both "guns and butter" - in this case, the gargantuan cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with the expense of pressing social needs at home.

In the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson was desperately trying to corral spending on the war in Vietnam to meet domestic pressure of the Great Society, his guns vs. butter answer was yes, we can afford both. The economic result was a decade of runaway inflation in the 1970s.

Needless to say, this nation cannot afford a repeat, and neither should the budget debate shy from the broader question: Should the United States be trying to set a political agenda around the globe at the expense of the welfare of its own citizens?

The White House priority is clear. Mr. Bush's cherished tax cuts for the rich would be continued under the budget, even though job creation has been slack and there is scant evidence the cuts have done much more than siphon $1 trillion from the federal treasury.

Guns - the military budget for next year - would get an increase of more than 10 percent, while butter - domestic spending, including Medicare, Medicaid, education, and all the rest - would be held to 1 percent.

Given inflation of about 2.5 percent, many if not most federal programs would see actual cuts, not just a slower rate of growth.

Which programs? In the bland language of budget bureaucrats, the President wants $78 billion in "savings" over the next five years from Medicaid, which pays for medical care for the poor, and Medicare, which pays those same costs for those 65 and over, as well as millions more who are disabled.

How? Mr. Bush proposes steadily reducing payments to doctors and hospitals, with the almost certain result that these "health-care providers" won't be able to take care of as many sick individuals or simply will choose not to take new Medicare patients.

Who loses? You do, if you happen to be poor, or if you are among 42 million Americans on Medicare. Baby Boomers, who will soon swell the Medicare ranks, should be very concerned about such a trend.

For the military, in contrast, the budget proposal would be tall cotton. Mr. Bush wants more than $481 billion for the Pentagon's "regular" defense budget - up 62 percent from when he took office in 2001 - plus $235 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The $716.5 billion sum is a full 25 percent of the entire proposed budget for fiscal 2008, which begins Oct. 1.

While the President should get credit for abandoning the use of supplemental appropriations - which he has employed to avoid totaling up the true cost of funding the war - the budget figures should inform debate on where Mr. Bush's ill-begotten foreign adventure is taking the country.



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