By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The improbable topic of today's column is Monica Goodling and the federal budget deficit.
You might think that the two of these have nothing in common save the happenstance that both are the subject of devastating new reports: Goodling about the stomach-turning politicization of the Justice Department; the deficit about the stomach-turning state of the federal treasury.
But the linkage goes beyond the adjective. The ousted Goodling and the lingering deficit are twin manifestations of the Bush administration's overarching contempt for government and blind adherence to ideology.
This administration will leave office having trashed the place -- and I'm not talking about a few "W's" pried loose from White House computer keyboards by the exiting Clinton crew. I'm referring to the myriad ways in which this administration, dismissive of the role of government, abused the enterprise it was entrusted with overseeing.
My favorite sentence in the Goodling report sums up the hiring practices in the department's supposedly nonpartisan career ranks: "Tell Brad he can hire one more good American."
This was the response by Goodling, who served as Justice's liaison with the White House, to a request from Bradley Schlozman, the interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo., to bring aboard a new prosecutor. "Good American" is Goodling's code for "Republican."
Every victorious administration enjoys the legitimate spoils of government. The president is entitled to bring in his people -- those who have voted for him, written checks to him and back his policies. Every administration has its Goodlings, inexperienced punks who flaunt their authority as conspicuously as a West Wing badge.
Most administrations find ways to keep the Goodlings under control and the grown-ups in charge. The trouble with this one is that it is riddled with Goodlings Gone Wild, incapable of or unwilling to distinguish between the proper pursuit of political aims and the responsible administration of government.
To take one other recent example, the NASA inspector general found last month that press officers in the space agency "reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized" studies of global warming, toning down politically unwelcome conclusions. A news conference on global warming was postponed, according to a senior scientist, because the "administration does not want any negative environmental news before the  election."
So what's the deficit got to do with it? The deterioration of the nation's budgetary picture under the reckless stewardship of this administration is the fiscal equivalent of the Goodlingization of the executive branch. President Bush put adherence to Republican theology -- taxes must be cut -- over prudent governing.
In February 2001, when the new president presented his first budget to Congress, he described the fiscal situation this way: "We have increased our budget at a responsible 4 percent, we have funded our priorities, we have paid down all the available debt, we have prepared for contingencies and we still have money left over."
That happy situation, he said, justified -- no, necessitated-- a tax cut: "The growing surplus exists because taxes are too high and government is charging more than it needs. The people of America have been overcharged, and on their behalf, I am here asking for a refund."
The next president will confront a far gloomier situation. The deficit, the administration's budget experts reported Monday, will be $482 billion -- a huge number that is probably a low-ball. Among other things, it assumes only $70 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The best argument the Bush administration has going for it is that this number, however mind-bogglingly large it sounds, is not alarming measured the most logical way, as a share of the economy. The 2009 deficit is projected to be just 3.3 percent of gross domestic product, well below the record 6 percent in 1983.
The difference is that President Ronald Reagan, facing such daunting deficits, changed course and undid about one-third of his earlier tax cuts. Bush, by contrast, is determined to insist, on his way out the door, that the tax cuts he once said were required by the surplus he inherited are now required by the deficit he is creating.
Delivering the bad deficit news, Jim Nussle, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, asserted that it was essential to keep the tax cuts in place to achieve balance. Huh? The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the total budgetary cost of the Bush tax cuts will be $245 billion next fiscal year -- half the hole the administration has helped dig.
Monica Goodling was not the problem. She was the symptom of an administration so certain of the correctness of its worldview that it never pauses to reconsider.