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By PHILIP GAILEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001
I am beginning to wonder if the American people are as dumb as the politicians in Washington think we are. The political debate in Congress -- from tax cuts to the patients' rights bill, from education reform to campaign finance overhaul, from gun control to fiscal responsibility -- has less to do with solving problems than with scoring political points. If public opinion polls are to be believed, the Democrats have the political advantage on most of the issues on the Washington agenda. But does anyone really believe that either party has the political will to do what it would take to expand health care, reduce gun violence, rescue poor children trapped in urban education ghettos or practice fiscal discipline?
Consider the latest issue to dominate the debate in Congress -- the so-called patients' bill of rights. Democrats, who like to tinker at the margins, know it's easier to demonize the managed care industry than to address the larger problem -- a health care system that has left 44-million Americans without coverage. So they accuse Republicans of being in the pockets of the health insurance industry, which may be true. Republicans, in turn, charge that Democrats are using the issue to pay off their political debt to the nation's trial lawyers, which also may be true. Neither party is talking about how to expand health insurance to those who don't have it or to improve the quality of care for those who do.
The only thing more discouraging than the lack of political courage is the lack of honesty. The Bush tax-cut plan is the mother of all whoppers, the most dishonest budget plan since Reaganomics. The president and his supporters on Capitol Hill kept telling us not to worry, that the budget surplus, combined with spending restraint, would cover it all -- across-the-board tax cuts and more spending on education, defense, veterans benefits, farm aid and political pork. And there would be plenty left over to finance a prescription drug program and protect the solvency of Social Security and Medicare for the baby boom generation. They used budget gimmicks to mask the true cost of tax cuts, and a majority of lawmakers, including some Democrats, went along with the budget fraud.
But fantasy is beginning to give way to reality. The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that President Bush's $1.35-billion tax cut, coupled with falling corporate tax revenue, has already wiped out three-quarters of the projected federal budget surplus through 2004. As the surplus disappears, Congress and the White House will have to either make politically painful cuts in domestic spending or dip into the funds reserved for Social Security and Medicare. Remember, both lawmakers and the White House have vowed not to touch Medicare funds. So where will they find the savings? Neither party wants to cut popular spending programs. In fact, they want to spend more. As soon as the tax cut was signed into law, Congress went on a bipartisan spending binge. The way things are going, lawmakers will crash through the spending ceilings they set in a budget resolution before passing the Bush tax-cut bill.
The budget chickens are already coming home to roost. Last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was on Capitol Hill asking for an $18-billion increase in the defense budget. He will be back asking for even more, of that you can be sure. The Bush tax cuts already are beginning to collide with his other budget priorities, but you won't find anyone in the administration willing to acknowledge that, at least publicly.
The White House and the Congress will soon face some tough spending choices, but it's not hard to predict the outcome. They'll come up with some more gimmicks to try to conceal the fact that they are squandering the budget surplus and raiding Social Security and Medicare. If anyone in private business tried to cook the books this way, they would be up on fraud charges.
As reckless as the Bush tax cuts are, there is no reason to expect Congress to do the right thing and repeal them, especially with congressional elections just around the corner. To the contrary -- conservative Republicans are demanding even more tax cuts, while both Democrats and Republicans are pressing for more spending. At least some Republicans have been honest enough to admit that the real goal of the Bush tax cuts was to make it more difficult for Democrats to increase domestic spending. That's what Ronald Reagan did with his tax cuts, and that's what George W. Bush has done with his.
The American people, if the polls were accurate, never bought into the president's tax-cut plan. They kept saying they would prefer to see the surplus used to pay down the national debt, finance a prescription drug program and protect Social Security and Medicare. But they never got that message through the heads of their elected representatives.
So enjoy your tax rebate ($300 for single taxpayers, $600 for couples) this year. It's going to cost you more than you may realize.