Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Happy Rebirthday, W

It is clear from his State of the Union address this week that George W. Bush, our beloved 43rd chief executive, has been reborn—this time as a fiscal conservative. Mr. Bush expressed his new faith in these words,

American families have to balance their budgets; so should their government.

This, faithful reader, is from a president who has added three and a half trillion dollars to the debt of the government of the United States since he took office in 2001, an increase of over 60%. This is also from a president who did not even threaten to veto any of the pork-laden appropriation acts that were sent to his desk by the Republican-controlled Congress in the first six years of his Administration. So, for George W. Bush to suddenly discover the idea of a balanced budget at the beginning of his last year in office is indeed a rebirth.

To what are we to attribute this sudden change in W? Clearly, he’s not running for reelection. And, since most members of his party who are running for election or reelection this year would just as soon that the president became invisible between now and November, I don’t think he’s doing it to help other Republicans. Is he trying to raise his ratings in the polls? Is he trying to create a new image for posterity?

You may say why question the guy’s motives? Just accept that he is repenting his spendthrift ways and assume that his conversion is genuine.

Okay, I’ll do that. I’ll do that even though language in the State of the Union speech makes me wonder whether W is, in fact, repenting. For one thing, Mr. Bush is not accepting any responsibility for his seven years of borrow-and-spend governing. He is thrusting the blame, instead, on the Congress. In his own words (assuming he has anything to do with writing his speeches):

The people's trust in their government is undermined by congressional earmarks—special interest projects that are often snuck in at the last minute, without discussion or debate. Last year, I asked you to voluntarily cut the number and cost of earmarks in half. I also asked you to stop slipping earmarks into committee reports that never even come to a vote. Unfortunately, neither goal was met. So this time, if you send me an appropriations bill that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half, I'll send it back to you with my veto.

I see no contrition. I see no admission of guilt over his reckless spending in the past. All I see is someone who puts the blame on the Congress for wasteful spending.

Maven, you said you would be positive.

Okay! Hey, good for you, George. You’re going to crack down on Democratic pork. (As my friend Carlos pointed out, Mr. Bush never objected to earmarks when his party ran the Congress because that was Kosher Republican pork, which is wholly distinguishable from the non Kosher Democratic variety.) I guess your rebirth must have been really recent, because on December 26, 2007, you signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2008, despite your observation that it contained “nearly 9800 earmarks totaling more than $10 billion.” Mr. Bush, if earmarks bother you so much, why didn’t you veto that bill? Were you just giving late Christmas presidents to those nearly 9800 deserving citizens? Unfortunately, Mr. President, you sound an awful lot like some parents I saw on Super Nanny, who constantly threatened to discipline their child but never did.

Really, maven, I give up on you. You’re not going to give the guy the benefit of the doubt.

Hey, reader, take a look at my motto. I never have any doubt. Now, stop interrupting me and let me get on with my president-roasting. The president also added this promise concerning earmarks that are not voted on by the Congress:

And tomorrow, I will issue an executive order that directs federal agencies to ignore any future earmark that is not voted on by Congress. If these items are truly worth funding, Congress should debate them in the open and hold a public vote.

What, you may ask, is the president talking about? What is an earmark that is “not voted on?”

Now, the maven can apply his expertise. Most earmarks, or line item appropriations, are included in the text of appropriations bills. Sometimes, however, a committee member or even a staffer may put into a committee report a statement of how the committee intends certain funds to be spent. Since committee reports almost never become part of the bill, these statements of spending preferences are not voted on by either chamber of the Congress. Because they are not included in the text of the bill these so-called “earmarks” never become part of the enacted appropriation act. And, as the Comptroller General of the United States has said innumerable times, these statements are not legally binding on the agencies of the Executive Branch of our government.

So, our president is issuing an executive order to tell federal agencies to ignore what they should have been ignoring before. Federal agencies should be using appropriated funds in accordance with the language of appropriations acts, not the desires of staffers.

In his speech, Mr. Bush said that because of the low-fat budgets that he has been feeding the Congress he expects that the federal budget will be in balance by fiscal year 2012. Since, in earlier State of the Union speeches, Mr. Bush was confident that the budget would be balanced by 2009, I get the feeling we are chasing a constantly moving target. I do not want to imply that this governing thing is a simple business. But, it should be obvious to anybody that if you are going into deeper and deeper debt each year you need to do one or both of two things. You’ve got to cut your spending and/or you’ve got to increase your income. That is all it takes. If, Mr. Bush had wanted to send a balanced budget to the Congress for its consideration, he could have done so years ago.

So, 2008 will be the year when our government finally starts acting responsibly with respect to its finances. (Oh, please ignore those last two years of the Clinton Administration when the government actually had budget surpluses.) Mr. Bush will veto any appropriation act that doesn’t cut earmarks in half. (Why in half? Why not just threaten to veto all acts that contain any earmarks?) Mr. Bush will remind agency heads that statements in committee reports are not the law. Mr. Bush will request $140 billion in tax cuts as an economic stimulus package, which will add $140 billion to the national debt. (I’m sorry, forget that one. The economic stimulation package is the old W, not the new fiscally responsible one.)

And so, the woodsman killed the wolf, and Red Riding Hood and Grandma lived happily ever after. Happy Rebirth Day, Mr. President.

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