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Published: 2/13/2005

Bush budget plan seriously dysfunctional

WASHINGTON - Do not sigh. This is the last time the loathsome term "federal budget" will appear in this column. But I do want to theorize about what would happen to your family if you came up with a spending plan the way President Bush has for the American family.

We're talking serious dysfunction.

First of all, you would plan your spending for the next 10 years as if an uncle or aunt you'd never heard from would expire and leave an undetermined amount of money to you. It could be peanuts, but it also could be oodles of boodle. Now, probate will take years, but go ahead and assume that big bucks are coming your way.

That's the first premise of the White House plan, according to Joshua Bolten, the President's moneyman, who over eggs and bacon explained to puzzled reporters that tax revenues will soar because the economy will grow because Congress will make the President's tax cuts permanent and investors will relish the certainty of knowing the future.

Back to your kitchen table.

You decide that you don't have to include retirement costs in your long-term spending blueprint because in your memory none of your relatives has retired and gone to the poorhouse, if there were still poorhouses. Also, you're not certain what the federal government will do about the eventual shortfall in Social Security, as Mr. Bolten explained (with a straight face), so you don't have to account for the dollars you'll need to live when the work paychecks stop. At least not yet.

As you confront your bleary-eyed family members, you next tell them you can all assume that your federal tax bill won't go up next year because the President promised it wouldn't. However, the President forgot to mention the dreaded "AMT" debacle.

That's something most taxpayers have never heard of, but next year it's going to whack many of them upside their wallets. The alternative minimum tax was designed to keep wealthy people from using so many loopholes that they avoided paying taxes altogether. But it got out of hand and began vastly increasing the taxes of middle-class families. So, a one-year patch was instituted for 2005. It expires next year, and Mr. Bush is not proposing to do anything about it. Millions of families will feel like goldfish dumped out of an aquarium, floundering on the floor in a pool of unexpectedly higher taxes.

As you tote up your household numbers, you realize you haven't included the legal costs of the lawsuit you've filed against your obnoxious neighbor against the advice of your lawyer. But since you don't have the exact amount, you leave it out. That is the equivalent of Mr. Bush's leaving out the cost of the war in Iraq next year, which will have cost $280 billion by then. The Pentagon estimates that 120,000 U.S. troops will still be in Iraq through 2006. But Mr. Bolten says there's no point in guessing what the costs will be, so it's not included in the budget. That money will have to be borrowed.

Five years ago, your family thought it had a surplus, enough money to pay for each child's college education and to still put a new addition on the house. Now you tell them, sadly, that they must deal with the inopportune fact that you don't have enough money to pay the bills. You will have a deficit this year and the next and the next, etc. But, you say with a grin, you have good news: In five years, the deficit as a percent of your total income will be half of what it is going to be this year. (You don't mention the debt piled up in the meantime.)

You now face the moment in this long, unpleasant evening when you announce that expenses must be cut. With a dolorous expression, you pass out a piece of paper to each flinching family member waiting to see what will be eliminated.

Movies? Meals out? Piano lessons? Braces? Magazines?

Your paper has one number: six. Confused, your family looks at you. You say that six items must be cut and that you have an idea of what they'll be, but you want to make certain the list is correct. You say you'll get back to them. Basically, your nerves can't handle the screaming, so you postpone the inevitable.

That's what the White House did this past week. It said 150 popular programs must be eliminated or trimmed, but during nine hours of questioning by frustrated lawmakers, Mr. Bolten said that the list of those programs wasn't ready yet.

He also said that the President's plan is tight, disciplined, and austere. Oddly, he never once called it "realistic."



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