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Bush's last spending plan only adds to a disastrous fiscal legacy
Washington Post
February 5, 2008

SEVEN LONG years ago, a new president submitted his first budget -- an optimistic document now relevant only as a chastening artifact of a bygone era. In that "Blueprint for New Beginnings," George W. Bush grappled with the supposed challenge of dealing with a projected surplus of $5.6 trillion over the next decade. The president proposed to pay down the debt by $2 trillion during that time, which, he said, was as much as could be responsibly redeemed. He offered lavish tax cuts. And he vowed to "confront great challenges from which Government has too long flinched," putting Social Security and Medicare on solid financial footing.

The final budget of Mr. Bush's presidency arrived yesterday, and the contrast between then and now could hardly be more sobering. Instead of being paid down, the national debt has grown by $2 trillion. The $725 billion surplus once projected for the coming fiscal year (2009) has evaporated. In its place is a $407 billion deficit -- an unrealistically rosy number that omits billions in likely war spending and is artificially reduced by including the $200 billion Social Security surplus. The explosion in entitlement costs has been left unaddressed and is therefore even more daunting. Indeed, on entitlements, Mr. Bush's legacy will be to have added to the long-term tab with the addition of an expensive Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Some of this transformation, as the administration would be the first to point out, is not Mr. Bush's fault. Even as he submitted that initial budget, the economy was slowing. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, further rattled the economy and imposed huge unanticipated costs for homeland security and military operations overseas. Mr. Bush tried to launch the necessary debate on Social Security, and, although the president can be faulted for having poisoned the well with a relentlessly partisan legislative strategy, congressional Democrats chose to respond with more partisanship.

But the fact remains that the purported surplus on which Mr. Bush based his tax-cutting agenda was always something of a mirage, and the president has never been willing to adjust his agenda to the grim new fiscal reality. Yesterday's promise of a small surplus by 2012 is once again premised on omitting likely costs (zero is budgeted for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan) and by assuming cuts to domestic spending that are unachievable politically and, in large part, unwise as a matter of policy.

As always, Mr. Bush pledges to press ahead with his tax-cutting agenda: another $2.4 trillion over the next decade, $3.7 trillion if relief from the alternative minimum tax is included. The president argues that failing to extend his previous tax cuts would result in an average tax increase of $1,800. But Mr. Bush neglects to point out that the overwhelming share of the tax cuts go to the wealthiest Americans. The top 1 percent of households -- those with incomes of more than $450,000 -- would get 31 percent of the benefits, with tax cuts averaging $67,000 by 2012. And Mr. Bush does not even propose fully paying for these cuts: The budget he submitted yesterday envisions another $397 billion in deficit spending over the next five years because it would devote more money to tax cuts than it would cut in spending.

Mr. Bush inherited a potential windfall -- and squandered it. The next president will inherit his mess.

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