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Fight Over Fiscal Discipline Begins With Bush’s Budget

There’s a two-front battle between Congress and President Bush. While they feud over who will direct policy in Iraq, an inch-by-inch slugfest continues over who will control the domestic policy turf.

“It’s the spending, stupid!” was as big a message as Iraq last fall. Bush’s proposed budget is pivotal, despite efforts to demean it as irrelevant.

With one simple pronouncement the president showed that he “gets it” even if others don’t: He embraced the too-long-abandoned goal of balancing the budget without raising taxes.

It’s been an orphaned issue for many years in Washington, D.C.; 1996 saw the last Congressional vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Yet that was the top item in the “Contract with America” before the Republican majority shifted to less-ambitious objectives. Nor did Bush embrace it during his first six years in office. That opened the door for Democrats to campaign successfully on fiscal discipline.

Preservation of the Democrats’ new majority may hinge on whether they will embrace balancing the budget without a tax hike — or even accept the goal of balance when spending on entitlements is set to skyrocket as baby boomers age. Bush knew that when he set the bar so high. And Republicans in Congress know they can now voice support for the goal without being in charge of the tough decisions.

Cynics rightfully note that the next president will inherit much of the heavy lifting. But that means every 2008 candidate for the White House must now address the issue.

Early indicators show an effort to bury the issue by attacking the tough decisions promoted by the Bush budget. Critics of spending controls rushed to the microphones more quickly than supporters did.

Bush’s proposals to rein in Medicare and other government-paid health care were quickly condemned. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) called them “an exercise in make-believe.” Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) said it would hamper his “All Kids” program to provide government-paid health care for every child, regardless of income.

But Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) properly questioned why the federal government pays billions extra to states that give free health care to families with income three times the poverty level, while others draw the line at two times. Imagine the cost if states could abandon all income restrictions like Blagojevich wants.

States feel entitled to federal funds just as individuals do, even though 45 states reported in the fall that their budgets are meeting or exceeding their projections. Homeland security has joined health care and education as a way to justify a multitude of state requests. Federal funds now provide training and equipment to first responders “just in case” they face a cataclysm, yet the funds often will be used to address auto accidents and fires instead.

One example was voiced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who said it is “completely appalling that the [Bush] administration seems to be unwilling to act on rail and mass transit security until we are faced with another disaster.”

Yet if it’s a federal duty to provide security for large gatherings at rail stations or bus stops, then why not at every mall and sports arena? (This differs from aviation, where a hijacked and fuel-laden plane becomes a guided missile.)

The Bush budget spotlights tough choices like these, while Congress often avoids them as the price of achieving a majority vote. But the elections weren’t just about Iraq. Democrats claim they also were about “underfunded” priorities, but more voters seem to understand that overfunded priorities were a bigger problem.

If Democrats want to claim the low-spending high ground along with Bush, they must avoid gobbledygook and speak with equal clarity. They should state their spending goal clearly, without carefully crafted modifiers or qualifiers. And if their goal is to balance the budget by raising taxes, they should say so.

Republicans should follow the same advice of clear-speaking. The GOP challenge is less over what to say but whether it will be believed, since voters decided they lacked fiscal discipline in recent years. But embracing the president’s goal is a necessary first step to regaining trust.

Former Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) is a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

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