The cavernous hearing room of the House Ways and Means Committee was wall to wall with lobbyists the other afternoon, as it always is when a tax bill is on the agenda. Treasury Secretary John Snow was testifying on behalf of President Bush's proposal to cut taxes again -- this time by an estimated $726 billion over the next 10 years. That's three-quarters of a trillion dollars, not counting the interest costs on the additional borrowing needed to finance this bonanza.
While the lobbyists seated around me whispered to each other their hopes of attaching their favorite features to the administration bill, Democratic members were peppering Snow with questions, asking how the country could afford all this when the budget this year is at least $300 billion in the red and no one -- certainly not Snow -- could offer even a horseback estimate of what a war with Iraq and its aftermath might cost.
But the president's man was not fazed. "We can well afford the war," Snow said, "and we'll put it behind us."
That nonchalance -- the brushoff to nitpicking questions about the massive debt being handed to our children and grandchildren -- is what makes the atmosphere in Washington so mind-boggling these days.
It was borne home to me when I spent an hour the next day on one of my favorite Web sites, Stateline.org. It turns out that while the lobbyists were licking their chops for new tax cuts in Washington, other folks on quite a different mission were flooding the corridors of state capitols around the country.
In Oklahoma City, the Daily Oklahoman reported, "nearly 500 Oklahomans on Tuesday went to the state capitol to lobby legislators to protect the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Department from further budget cuts." While more and more people are turning to crisis intervention centers, the story said, the legislature's budget is cutting the agency almost 10 percent.
In South Carolina, protesters were almost tripping over each other. A group of college students came to Columbia to bewail the elimination of the HOPE Scholarship Program, which last year gave $2,500 stipends to about 2,000 students who had maintained B averages. At the same time, state employees -- their ranks already reduced by 2,000 -- told legislators of the hardships they would face if their monthly health insurance premiums were raised $48 to help close a $530 million budget shortfall.
Nationally, the latest estimates of state deficits for the coming fiscal year have climbed to $80 billion. But talking in sums of such unimaginable magnitude really camouflages the terrible choices that governors and legislators of both parties are making to meet state balanced-budget requirements -- while their counterparts in Washington blissfully reject even a pretense of paying the nation's bills.
Last year, most states struggled to avoid raising anything other than cigarette taxes, and used every possible device to spare schools and colleges from the budget ax. This year, those painful steps cannot be avoided.
In Alabama, the new governor, Bob Riley, said he would try to protect schools and delay tax hikes, but the state school superintendent warned districts to expect a 5 percent cutback -- and key legislators said higher taxes are inevitable.
In Colorado, where the budget gap is estimated at $870 million, Gov. Bill Owens got a package of cuts that ranged from canceling Medicaid benefits for legal immigrants to eliminating jail sentences for gambling, check fraud and even failure to register as a sex offender. More cuts are expected unless revenues recover.
In Connecticut, Gov. John Rowland signed a budget increasing the top income tax rate, retroactive to Jan. 1, and boosting many other levies. Now he is asking for a 3 percent reduction in the state's primary education grant to local schools.
In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush took the unprecedented step of asking for a special election in which voters could reconsider initiatives approved last November to reduce class sizes and build a bullet train line across the state, saying Florida simply can't afford what the public wants.
And in Minnesota, the state transportation agency said it may have to close rest stops and bathrooms along most highways because of cutbacks ordered by freshman Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
All of these governors are Republicans, but the problem is at least as severe in states with Democratic governors. When the state executives were in Washington two weeks ago, they listened politely as President Bush expressed his sympathy, but said he had his own fiscal problems.
But the taxcutting in Washington looks remarkably indulgent when you see what is happening in the states.