If you want to know how serious the Bush White House is about something, it is often useful to watch the House of Representatives. The president's spokesmen frequently pay lip service to goals that sound great. Only by checking the actions of the loyalist leadership of the House can you discern what President Bush really means.
The president has said many times that he has offered a budget that will cut the record deficit of this year in half in the next five years. So one would think that in the House, where his word is law, those marching orders would be carried forward.
On the face of it, Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle of Iowa claims to have done the president one year better -- halving the ugly deficit in four years.
Don't believe it. The House budget is a document that makes ordinary Washington budgetary "smoke and mirrors" look good.
It was brought to the floor on May 19 under the sort of strong-arm procedures that Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay use when they know they've got a turkey on their hands. Last year, with the Medicare drug benefits bill (whose true cost we now know was deliberately underestimated and concealed by the administration), their tactic was delay. The House was kept in session all night; the actual roll call was stretched to almost three hours -- not the normal 15 minutes. Dawn was breaking over the Capitol when the necessary votes were finally squeezed.
On this bill, they put on the rush job. The budget was filed at 6:20 a.m. At 7:15 a.m., the Rules Committee met to clear it for debate. A couple of hours later, the House met for an abbreviated session and adjourned, and when it met again to take up the budget at 11 a.m., it was "deemed" to have satisfied the requirement that all legislation lay over one day so members can become familiar with it.
Familiarity in this case could only breed contempt. The Budget Act requires each year's budget resolution to project the five-year costs of the programs it finances and the five-year revenues available to pay for them. This budget uses real numbers only for the first year, and then plugs in arbitrary figures for the next four years -- figures that conveniently show the deficit shrinking. Even the expiring Bush tax cuts the Republicans want to make permanent are included only at their relatively modest first-year cost.
All these and other gimmicks were exposed in debate by Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, the senior Democrat on the Budget Committee, and by Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas, an implacable foe of deficit spending -- whose reward has been the gerrymandering of his district by Republicans last year in an effort to remove a conservative Democrat they never could defeat.
Despite the efforts of Spratt, Stenholm and others, the budget passed 216 to 213 on an almost straight party-line vote. Only nine brave Republicans -- almost all of them from the party's conservative wing -- joined with all the voting Democrats in opposition. Virtually all of the self-styled moderate Republicans went along the charade, which, among other things, would allow House members to approve a $690 billion increase in the ceiling on the national debt without the embarrassment of having to vote on it as a separate matter.
In the Senate, moderate Republicans have not been as supine. Four of them -- Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and John McCain of Arizona -- have held out for months against this kind of deal. They are insisting on full restoration of the "pay-as-you-go" rule that helped end the deficits and produced budget surpluses in the 1990s. That rule required that any new spending or tax cut be offset by lower spending or higher revenue somewhere else in the budget. Typically, the House Republican leadership wants to apply the discipline to spending, but not to tax cuts. And that has been the bone of contention between the two bodies.
When Congress comes back this week, the four recalcitrant senators will face increased pressure to cave. Their leadership is telling them that Democrats will crow if a Republican Congress is unable to pass a budget resolution. Majority Leader Bill Frist would much rather work out some kind of deal with the four holdouts and let the Democrats take the blame if it does not survive.
While the Republicans play these games, the unaffordable tax cuts and the undisciplined spending roll on.