Politics & Policy

Budgeting for a Fight

Nussle prepares the way.

Earlier this year, in an effort to save paper, the Bush White House ended the practice of distributing printed copies of the budget, and instead issued its fiscal 2009 budget electronically. Congress welcomed the administration’s paperless initiative by trashing the document faster than unwanted spam.

The Democratic leadership, angry after conceding almost every major budget battle to Bush last year, appears determined to fight harder against Bush on this, his final budget as president. White House Office of Management and Budget director Jim Nussle took a few minutes Thursday to tell National Review Online how he sees these fights playing out.

“I think the first big one that we’re going to see is over funding the troops,” Nussle says. Last year, Congress asked Bush for a detailed supplemental outlining the military’s needs in Iraq and Afghanistan, Nussle says, and the president sent one that detailed two years of funding for the war. After several failed attempts to make the funding conditional on the establishment of a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, Congress finally passed a $70 billion stopgap measure in December. But it has yet to act on $108 billion more that the military says it needs to fight the war.

“[The Pentagon] went to furlough notices because Congress put it off,” Nussle says, “because the Democrats couldn’t mollify their left-wing base, and now we’re hearing rumblings that there will be another spending fight this year.”

Democrats and even some Republicans have also griped that the overall amount of military spending in the president’s budget is too high, leading some fiscal conservatives to wonder whether the Pentagon has done enough prioritizing.

“I don’t think anyone should suggest that every dollar is spent wisely,” Nussle says. “We have waste in every agency and every department, including the Pentagon, even though we’ve done our best to root that out.

“To suggest that you’re going to balance the budget doing that is a little bit tougher challenge,” Nussle adds. “And most of what they’re complaining about — most of it is the war. But on that issue, the Democrats have gotten to a position that is unsustainable. That is, once you’ve asked men and women to go overseas and fight a war, you’re not going to leave them without their pay, without equipment, and without support. It’s strange to me that there’s even a debate about this.”

The second fight will be over the budget numbers themselves, Nussle says. “Just like last year, the president has set a top-line number and said, this is a reasonable level. If you want to move things around, adjust things according to your priorities, fine, but he’s set a number and said, that’s enough spending.” Last year, Bush vetoed two appropriations bills that would have pushed discretionary spending over his budgetary limit. The Democrats — lacking the votes to override him and stomach to shut down the government — finally passed a spending package that met the president’s requirements. (They did, however, manage to slip $11 billion in additional domestic spending into so-called emergency supplementals, demonstrating again why the emergency-spending process needs to be reformed.)

This year, President Bush is prepared to do it all over again. In a speech to the annual Conservative Political Action Committee meeting in Washington this month, Bush said, “Last week I proposed a budget that terminates or substantially reduces 151 wasteful or bloated programs,” he said. “Those programs total more than $18 billion. And if Congress sends me appropriations bills that exceed the reasonable limits I have set, I will veto the bills.”

The third fight might take place over how Congress decides to approach the appropriations bills themselves. Speaking on the Senate floor earlier this month, Senate majority leader Harry Reid said, “The president had us over a barrel last year on the appropriations bills because we did not want another continuing resolution. But he does not have us over a barrel this year, because either Senator [Hillary] Clinton or Senator [Barack] Obama will be the president in less than a year.”

Nussle explains that “Reid came out and said, we could probably get a better deal from the next president, so we can just pass a continuing resolution and deal with President Whoever later.” If the Democrats do pass a continuing resolution, Nussle says, “the only one that I believe the president would be interested in signing is one that continues at the current rate” — that is, the rate established by last year’s successful budget fights.

Nussle thinks it won’t come to that, because the appropriations committees like to exercise their power. The power to appropriate is the power to earmark funds for favored projects, although the president is attempting to crackdown on earmarking, too. In his State of the Union Address this year, Bush threatened to veto any bill “that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half.”

Bush has also issued an executive order for fiscal 2009 directing agencies to ignore any earmarks that are slipped into bill reports and not included in the text of bills themselves. Bill reports rarely see the light of day, yet they are highly influential in directing spending. This makes them perfect for lawmakers seeking to reward contributors with earmarks without facing scrutiny. The only problem with Bush’s order is that he won’t be around to enforce it. Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has announced that if elected, he would. So far, Clinton and Obama haven’t said what they would do.

“Those are probably the big fights, and I believe we can win,” Nussle concludes. But more important for the country’s future, perhaps, are the fights that probably won’t take place next year. For instance, the president’s budget includes a detailed plan to slow the growth of Medicare to a more sustainable level, but in an election year, Congress is likely to ignore the problem.

“Compare the amount of time Congress spends trying to get an earmark in a bill, and how much time they’re going to spend talking about Medicare this year. It’s breathtaking,” Nussle says. “Not to suggest that those smaller-ticket items aren’t important. But I wish there was more debate on the big-ticket items.”

– Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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