The Bush Plan
March 1, 2001

Sylvia was in a reminiscent mood. Ah the early 90s, those were the good old days. Then we had budget deficits. Politicians were forced to exert a certain discipline.

But now, Washington is awash in budget surpluses. And true to form, Republicans and Democrats alike are salivating at the prospect of doling them out to please their respective constituencies.

Republicans, their eye on their wealthy benefactors, are clamoring for large tax cuts. Some even chide President Bush (albeit gently, noted Sylvia) for his parsimonious tax cuts: Couldn't he lower the top federal marginal income tax rate from 39.6% to 28%, instead of merely trimming it to 33%? But, they remind themselves agreeably, at least the estate tax would be no more.

Then there are the Democrats. For long addicted to myriad spending programs, now they find themselves in the curious position of advocating fiscal restraint. We must pay off the national debt, they say earnestly, before we go around cutting taxes. How remarkable, thought Sylvia, until one was struck by the possibility that their newfound probity was intended to prevent Bush from using up the surplus for his tax cuts and leaving them with little to spend on their pet programs.

Not that Bush's $2 trillion budget is bereft of spending increases. The proposed budget for fiscal 2002 shows an increase of 5.5% from this year, considerably higher than the rate of inflation (around 3%). But Bush, to his credit, has sought to restrict the increase in discretionary spending (which excludes entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare) to 4%, a marked decrease from the last couple of years. Defense spending is poised to rise (to $310 billion), as is spending on education and health. But agriculture, transportation and commerce will all see cuts.

Now it is Congress's turn. The Reps and Dems will begin their tortuous negotiations, haggling over the various provisions like shoppers in a Persian bazaar. The stauncher of the conservatives would seek to deepen the tax cuts while liberals pressed for increased spending. By the time they were done, and the special interest groups had their say, would the budget be recognizable? With the surpluses beckoning invitingly, Sylvia rather doubted it.

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