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Bush’s Budget Focuses On Short-Term Politics, Not Long-Term Future

President Bush said in his State of the Union address that his agenda is all about building “a better world for our children and grandchildren.” But his new budget betrays a distinctly short-term focus.

The president, clearly responding to criticism that Republicans haven’t controlled federal spending, has proposed a tight lid for domestic discretionary outlays — 13 percent of the total budget — that in the process will likely starve scientific research that ought to be considered an investment in the nation’s future.

[IMGCAP(1)] In addition, the Bush budget hides the true extent of long-term debt burdens that his tax cuts and borrowing requirements will impose on future generations.

And his agenda largely fails to curb one of the key drivers of future fiscal insolvency: double-digit annual increases in health spending.

In previous decades, federally funded research on basic science has spawned entire industries based on computers, satellites, lasers, high-speed communications and biotech.

The prospect of future gains in optics, advanced materials, imaging, genetic therapies and nanotechnology — in a context of increasing movement of high-tech research capacity to China and India — ought to impel the Bush administration to consider research as investment, not “spending.”

That idea is particularly true for medical research, which has the potential to help lower future health costs either by conquering whole categories of disease or by postponing disability, something that has already happened in dramatic fashion for many patients being treated for heart disease or AIDS.

In his State of the Union address, Bush extolled medical research for “developing treatments and cures that save lives and help people overcome disabilities,” and he thanked Congress for doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health over the period from 1998 to 2003.

But his budget this week called for just a 0.7 percent increase in NIH funding for fiscal 2006 — well below the 3.2 percent necessary to keep pace with biomedical inflation.

In the words of Pat White, the federal relations director for the Association of American Universities, a lobbying group for big academic centers, “this is a crash-landing for biomedical research” that could cut NIH research grants by 8.7 percent.

“Although there is no question that our fiscal circumstances and priorities have changed since the doubling, we are now effectively throwing away the biomedical research capacity that the NIH doubling created,” White said.

Somewhat to its credit, the White House reversed earlier plans to cut the National Science Foundation by 5 percent and instead awarded it a 2.4 percent increase. But the increase still leaves the agency just 2 percent above its 2004 funding level.

In November, after Congress cut the NSF’s budget below even Bush’s request last year, New York Times reporter Robert Pear noted that the NSF had helped finance the research that led to Web browsers and search engines as well as advances in weather forecasting, magnetic resonance imaging and highway safety.

Bush’s new budget also cuts funding for basic research at the Energy Department, which supports most physics research in the United States as well as alternative-fuel studies. Even the Pentagon, where the Internet was invented, stands to lose research funding, although funding for weapons development will rise.

Bush did award a 2.1 percent increase for NASA space research, principally for future manned travel to the moon and Mars. This may or may not pay earthly dividends, but the overall federal basic research budget is down $320 million. That’s a lot, and it’s short-sighted.

In fact, most of Bush’s entire budget document is distinctly short-sighted. It forecasts spending for the next five years, then stops — leaving a distorted picture of where the nation’s finances are heading in the long run.

“It’s good that they want to hold down spending,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “If they show declining deficits for five years, you’d think they’d want that trend to continue. But it won’t. Beginning in 2011, the deficit will start zooming up.”

Similarly, the Concord Coalition’s executive director, Robert Bixby, charged that Bush “relies on budgetary gimmicks that understate likely expenses and overstate likely revenue. … The main problem with this budget is not what’s in it, but what’s left out.”

These include continuing costs of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the full cost of extending Bush’s tax cuts and revising the Alternative Minimum Tax and borrowing needed to pay for Social Security reform and the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

It has just become public that the true cost of the drug benefit over 10 years will be $720 billion, not the $400 billion as originally forecast. Democrats are accusing Bush of dishonesty, but it’s fair to note that they were demanding a benefit double the size of Bush’s.

Bush is proposing reforms for Social Security and Medicaid, but his Medicaid cuts almost certainly will increase the ranks of the uninsured in the United States from its current 45 million. And his health care proposals won’t cover more than about 9 million of them.

To secure long-term fiscal health, the government needs to invest in science, comprehensively reform health care, means-test Medicare and stop cutting taxes for the wealthy. It also needs a budget system that tells us what everything really costs. Right now, it isn’t happening.

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