Bolten took to the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal in December to defend the administration’s fiscal record. His excuses for high spending and deficits are not convincing. First, he says deficits have been caused by declining revenues from the sluggish economy. That was a good argument two years ago, but the economy is growing strongly again and the government should have made adjustments in response to the leaner revenue picture. When revenues fall, the government should cut spending to balance the books just as any business would do.
The administration’s other argument is that spending has been driven by defense and national security needs. That was also a good excuse for awhile, but the administration should have been working on reform ideas to cut domestic spending to offset defense increases. Defense is certainly a high‐priority spending area, but the administration has not identified low‐priority spending areas that could be cut. Indeed, Bush has signed every spending bill that crossed his desk while his veto pen has collected dust.
Bolten argues that the president hasn’t vetoed a single spending bill because “he hasn’t needed to.” It’s more likely that the president hasn’t vetoed any spending bills because he hasn’t wanted to. Each spending bill that has come to his desk has represented a new vote‐buying opportunity, whether it was the big education bill in 2001, the big farm bill in 2002, or the even bigger Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003.
The drug bill is the largest entitlement expansion in 40 years. Its advertised price tag of $400 billion is actually a big understatement of the true cost. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill could cost taxpayers as much as $2 trillion in its second decade because of the rapid increase in the number of elderly in future years. Besides, Senator Ted Kennedy called it only a “down payment” for future drug program expansions.
In stark contrast, the Republicans sought cuts to Medicare in the 1990s because they were rightly concerned that the program’s cost will spin out of control when the baby boomer generation retires. Unfortunately, today’s Republicans, led by Bush, have made the coming elderly spending time bomb that much more explosive.
After increasing 24 percent in the past three years, the budget is in desperate need of cuts to get federal finances under control. But cuts are not a policy option that the current White House considers very much. At the time of this writing the new budget figures are not available, but it looks like the administration will request a 3 percent increase next year for non‐defense, non‐entitlement programs. In some years, 3 percent may seem like a reasonable increase. But we currently have a roughly $450 billion deficit. Shouldn’t the administration be calling at least for a freeze in federal spending to get the giant deficit under control?
In addition, the White House seems content to call for cutting the deficit in half in five years. That is remarkably timid. In the 1990s, the Republican Congress battled against all deficits and forced President Clinton to embrace a plan to completely eliminate the deficit over a period of years. Non‐entitlement spending actual fell in 1996, a truly rare event in federal budgeting.
The administration’s spin on today’s fiscal situation is not very convincing. In the Journal op‐ed, Bolten wrote: