President Bush is in a perilous political state. His slipping poll numbers are partly a result of softening support from his Republican base. If Bush doesn’t take decisive steps to try to offset the billions of new Katrina spending, the forecast will be: Danger, more softening ahead. Never in the Bush years has conservative discontent been so high, nor so justified. With a few false moves in the crucial weeks ahead, Bush could see even more of the life-blood squeezed from his presidency.
We all know the litany that got us to this point: Bush has never vetoed a congressional spending bill, even as Congress has agreed to fund an estimated 14,000 pork projects, up from around 1,000 in 1996; he has presided over a federal spending increase of 33 percent since 2001, with 55 percent of the increase in the last two years unrelated to defense, according to Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation; and he created a new entitlement, signing a $500 billion prescription-drug bill.
Conservatives could just manage to swallow all this, when there was the prospect of Social Security reform changing the politics of the nation’s most important entitlement. Now, the Katrina aftermath appears to have driven a stake through the already doubtful Social Security reform, while slathering on ever more federal spending in response to the disaster. The turn of events casts all that has come before in an even worse light, and makes Bush fiscal mismanagement looks increasingly intolerable to conservatives.
And so there are rumblings of revolt, which we heartily endorse. Bloggers are making lists of pork-barrel projects that can be cut. Republicans like John McCain–who has been starring in his role as scourge of wasteful spending in recent days–are calling for a repeal of the prescription-drug bill. The Republican Study Committee in the House has compiled a wish list of areas where funding should be outright revoked, or at least frozen. This grand bête noire, titled “Operation Offset,” suggests ways to save $139 billion in 2006 alone, and $950 billion over the next ten years. We would be happy to take all the RSC’s suggestions, and just running our eyes along the list, with the word “eliminate” repeated over and over, is enough to thrill our hearts.
But, given that there is Republican majority, but not a conservative majority in Congress, that’s not realistic, unfortunately. Fights over repealing “earmarks” will be extraordinarily bloody, without yielding major savings. A repeal of the prescription-drug bill–which we opposed at the time of its passage–is unlikely to happen and would be demagogued by Democrats as paying for Katrina on the backs of the ailing elderly. But President Bush must endorse a serious, realistic set of budget offsets, and the most promising area is corporate welfare.
“The trick is to create the basis for savings over time.”
It doesn’t have a natural base of support, and cuts in it will be much harder for Democrats to oppose. Republicans should have taken it on long ago. Now is a perfect moment. According to the RSC, eliminating corporate welfare would cut $5 billion in 2006 and $50 billion over ten years. Take one example: The Advanced Technology Program was instituted in the late 1980s, an overwrought response to the Japanese economic tiger. This program, funded to the tune of $150 million per year, gives grants for research and development on products with “significant commercial payoff.” That is, the money funds research on only the most marketable products, those that companies have the most incentive to fund anyway. General Motors, Motorola, and IBM have all cashed in. Over 35 percent of ATP funding has gone to 39 “Fortune 500″ companies, whose combined 2003 revenue was $1.4 trillion.
It’s not sexy, but Bush and anti-spenders in Congress should also be pushing to reform the congressional budget process, which favors free spending. Making the budget resolution binding, for instance, would rein in appropriators who ignore it to lavish money on their own priorities. Cuts in pork-barrel spending are important, but history tells us when the current anti-pork moment passes, pet projects will be back with a vengeance. The trick is to create the basis for savings over time.
The most important ingredient at the moment, however, is presidential leadership. It has been absent for five years on spending. Bush is said to rise to the occasion when confronted with crises. He is about to confront one within his own party on spending. Let the rising begin.