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Bush again takes own course on spending

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


WASHINGTON -- President Bush might be the first Republican leader in the past two decades who is not slavishly trying to recreate the good old days of Ronald Reagan.

Of course, Bush often benefits from comparisons to Reagan. Admirers say his management style and his ability to delegate is reminiscent of the 40th president. And his decision to introduce a tax-cut proposal at the outset of his term is also similar to the way Reagan began his term.

At the same time, Bush is trying actively to escape the worst elements of the Reagan legacy and nowhere is that effort more apparent than in his approach to defense spending.

When Reagan came to town in 1981, he not only succeeded in cutting taxes, but he also encouraged the Pentagon to embark on a spending spree. These two initiatives, when combined, were responsible for raising the federal deficit and the national debt.

Many skeptics in Washington at the time warned that Reagan's program of spending increases and revenue cuts was going to drive up the deficit. But Reagan dismissed them as people who were unable to grasp the beauty of supply-side economics.

Furthermore, Reagan argued that his increases in defense procurement would be offset by a fervent commitment to root out waste, fraud and abuse in federal spending

Republicans and Democrats doubted at the time that the Reagan administration could find enough waste, fraud and abuse to offset huge defense increases, and history proved them right. Reagan's crusade against government waste was a bust.

Two decades later, Bush arrives in Washington with the wisdom gained by watching Reagan's deficit-building policies. Thus while the new president has promised to devote more money to strengthening the nation's defense, he is taking an extremely cautious approach.

Even before Bush's budget blueprint is delivered to Congress later this month, he has let it be known that he will generally adhere to the spending levels set by the Clinton administration -- with one exception. He will add $48-billion to make good on his promise to improve pay and housing for members of the military.

Imagine the disappointment of the military establishment in Washington when they learned that the arrival of Bush did not mean an automatic green light for new weapons procurement. The Joint Chiefs, in response, have let it be known they are mighty unhappy with Bush's hold-the-line spending plan.

Apparently, when Bush declared during the campaign that he wanted to support the military, the Joint Chiefs thought he was referring to them. Instead, it seems he is more interested in spending money to benefit the rank-and-file soldier.

This week, Bush will focus on the needs of the military's rank-and-file by making trips to Fort Stewart in Savannah, Ga., and Norfolk Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Va. He also will go to Charleston, W.Va., to participate in a round-table discussion with reservists and National Guardsmen.

Bush said these trips are designed to "signal the priority I place on our military" and to tell the men and women who serve that "they deserve the best training, the latest and best equipment and long overdue improvements in their pay, housing and standard of living."

Although some of Bush's supporters might bemoan his decision not to plunge into a Reagan-style military spending spree, there is no doubt that his initiative to improve the lives of military men and women will have broad support among Democrats and Republicans.

To be sure, Bush is not adverse to spending more money on weapons systems, particularly a costly national missile defense. But he insists he cannot commit to anything until Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has completed a top-down review of the military to see what is needed in today's world.

The president notes that the nature of the security threats facing the United States are changing rapidly and the military might not be keeping up with these trends.

"America has some big choices to make as we prepare for the challenges and dangers of modern warfare," Bush said. "Battles will no longer be won by size alone; stealth and speed will matter more."

Like so much of what Bush has done in his first weeks in office, his willingness to stand up to the Joint Chiefs defies the stereotype of a Republican president.

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