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Entitlement programs demand reform

David Broder Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Back-to-back briefings last week put a harsh spotlight on the deep hole left by the budget policies of George Bush’s first term. Millions of Americans will be paying the price for the fiscal profligacy of this misnamed conservative government.

The bad news, delivered in the first report, is that the camouflaged domestic spending cuts contained in the Bush budget will – if accepted by Congress – do serious damage to education initiatives, low-income assistance and environmental programs over the next five years.

The worse news, documented in the second report, is that these cuts will not even begin to deal with the looming calamity of runaway entitlement spending on the retirement and health care costs of the baby boom generation.

You won’t find either of these warnings spelled out in the budget message of the president. An analysis by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that for the first time since at least 1989, the White House Office of Management and Budget failed to give Congress or the news media information on the proposed spending on most domestic programs beyond the coming year.

These “domestic discretionary” programs – covering all the routine functions of government except for defense, homeland security and international affairs, and the entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare – span the gamut from national parks to medical research.

They are financed by annual appropriations from Congress. Bush gave detailed directions on how he wants $18 billion saved on these programs next year, but then urged Congress to impose spending caps for the next five years that would reduce spending in these areas by $214 billion total – without spelling out any of the specific cuts. (Savings in all cases are measured against the fiscal 2005 spending on these programs, adjusted only for inflation.)

By studying the spending caps Bush proposed for the 57 broad functions included in the domestic discretionary budget, the center’s experts calculated how much would have to come out of individual programs – assuming Congress accepts Bush’s priorities.

The results are startling. Elementary and secondary education programs, including the president’s No Child Left Behind initiative, would be cut by $11.5 billion over the next five years to stay within the caps, with the 2010 year alone seeing a 12 percent reduction from inflation-adjusted 2005 levels.

The WIC program, which subsidizes the diets of low-income pregnant women and nursing mothers – a major preventive measure against low-weight babies – would be cut by $658 million, enough to reduce coverage in 2010 by 660,000 women. Head Start funds would be reduced by $3.3 billion over five years, with 118,000 fewer youngsters enrolled in 2010.

Clean water and clean air funding would decline by $6.4 billion over five years, a 20 percent cut in 2010. Community development programs used by cities to build up impoverished neighborhoods would lose $9.2 billion in five years, a 36 percent cut in 2010.

Most of these cuts would come out of state and local budgets, adding to the burdens their taxpayers would have to take up if services are to be maintained.

As Bob Greenstein, the center’s director, commented, cuts of this magnitude would be bitterly contested if Congress had to justify them to the people who care about each of these programs. But by asking instead for a vote this year on enforceable five-year caps on these broad categories of spending, the administration hopes to accomplish its goals without arousing the same degree of controversy.

The irony is that even if all this were done, the biggest budget problem would still remain. Medicare and Social Security benefits for the huge demographic wave of boomers, who start to turn 62 in just three years, make the current budget policies “unsustainable” for the long-term. That was the word used repeatedly at a briefing by David Walker, head of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog agency, and others.

Reform of these major entitlement programs is the pressing need to avoid a budget train wreck in the next generation, but Bush has offered little leadership on that. His Social Security plan – for individual savings accounts – does nothing to address the shortfall in that system. And his “contribution” to solving the more pressing crisis in Medicare has been to add an unaffordable prescription drug benefit to the program.

It is a sorry record for a conservative administration, and we are just beginning to recognize its price.

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