President Bush will sign legislation this week setting a 2003 budget that raises federal spending by 7.8 percent over last year, capping a remarkable two years in which the federal budget increased by 22 percent.
Although Bush has made controlling spending a recurring theme in recent months, the $791.5 billion spending bill for 2003 that he plans to approve by Thursday night will be one for the record books. The 2003 rate of discretionary spending increases -- the part of the budget subject to Congress's annual oversight -- will be the second-fastest since 1985. It is topped only by the 2002 increase, which included the government's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The government has not experienced a two-year leap in spending of this magnitude since expenditures jumped 24.5 percent between 1976 and 1978.
"We have a long way to go to, quote, rein things in," said G. William Hoagland, budget adviser to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
There appears to be little chance that the surging rate of spending will be tempered soon. Bush has called for spending increases for fiscal 2004, which begins Oct. 1, of just 3.4 percent over this year, but the president's budget does not include the cost of a potential war with Iraq or negotiations with Turkey over a large aid package in the event of war.
Administration officials say they could not put a price tag on such theoretical expenditures, but the budget does include a $400 billion placeholder for a Medicare overhaul and prescription drug proposal that has not been finished. The administration also has not funded military operations already underway in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf that are far from theoretical.
"It's just breathtaking. It's just absolutely mind-boggling" that those costs have not been included, said Thomas Kahn, the Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee.
What's more, Congress appears to be locking in future spending that may prove impossible to avoid. The 2003 budget authorizes discretionary expenditures totaling $763 billion, $14 billion more than Bush sought. Government agencies may take several years to write the checks to cover such authorized expenditures.
Bush administration officials and congressional Democrats say the rapid buildup of defense spending and homeland security efforts are driving the surge in spending. The assertion helps the White House defuse growing criticism from conservatives that the president is not doing enough to shrink the government.
"No question about it, the president has said we need to spend what it takes to fight the war on terrorism," said Trent Duffy, spokesman for the White House budget office.
As for the Democrats, blaming defense spending allows them to charge that Republicans are shortchanging popular domestic programs, even as overall spending surges.
But the numbers don't back up either side. Defense spending over the past two years rose 23 percent, barely more than the rise in total spending. Homeland security spending outside of the Defense Department surged from $10 billion in 2001 to $27 billion this year, but in sheer dollars that is hardly what is driving overall federal spending increases.
In other words, while some programs are being squeezed, outlays throughout the government are generally rising at nearly the same pace, budget experts say.
"We want to do guns, butter and homeland security all at once," said Hoagland.
Now, however, the administration appears ready to cut out the butter. Its recent 2004 budget plots a course for defense spending to virtually equal all nondefense discretionary spending by 2008, the last year the budget projects government costs.
From there, defense will be the driving force of the budget, according to a new analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. By locking the military into a variety of new weapons programs, such as a ballistic missile defense system, the administration plan would push defense spending from about $349 billion last year to $408 billion in 2007, the CBO said.
Then, in inflation-adjusted dollars, defense costs would average $428 billion a year between 2008 and 2020, higher for 12 years than they were at the peak of Ronald Reagan's Cold War defense buildup.
"Future resource demands would be higher than defense spending has been at any time in the past 22 years -- exceeding the peak of $421 billion in 1985," the CBO analysis found.