Trillion-dollar debt shapes budget, but Washington can’t blot red ink

As the White House and Congress pout, parry and plot over the 2006 federal budget plan of President George W. Bush, one fact gets clearer by the day: Nothing in it – or, for that matter, out of it – adds up.
Moreover, it’s becoming evident that few in the White House or Congress, be they Republican or Democrat, blue dog or yellow parakeet, have a good idea about what to do next.
Hot air. To date, most action has been more posturing than productive.
Take the Democrats on the House Ag Committee. On Feb. 10, all 21 minority members of the committee signed a fact-filled manifesto that sternly warns GOP aggies not to reopen the 2002 farm bill to implement White House budget cuts.
It was a shotgun blast.
Usually, both Congressional ag committees are paragons of bipartisanship. Cross-aisle members are as tight as a vest on a statue because one degree of separation can derail farm legislation – especially so in the metrocentric House.
But farm and ranch committee Dems punctured that necessary comity with their “Reaffirming Congress’ Contract with Agriculture Established in the 2002 Farm Bill.”
Grains of truth. While Republicans could dicker with the brief’s big numbers, they couldn’t dicker with its bigger points.
For example, “The 2002 farm bill is not responsible for the $484 billion budget deficit.”
Also, while “Agriculture is 1 percent of all (federal) mandatory spending, (agriculture takes) 8 percent of all mandatory spending cuts.”
And too, “Agriculture discretionary spending is being cut by 9.6 percent while all other discretionary spending, excluding defense and homeland security, is being cut by 0.3 percent.”
Likewise, ag’s mandatory spending “is being cut 5.6 percent from 2006 to 2010 while all other mandatory spending is being cut 0.6 percent.”
Still friends. Despite the salvo, historical pleasantness prevailed in the House committee’s quick rules-setting meeting Feb. 16.
New ranking minority member Collin Peterson of Minnesota exchanged bouquets with new Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., during the group’s initial 2005 get-together.
Peterson did notify Goodlatte, however, that he would send House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, a letter that echoes the themes in his members’ manifesto: USDA is unfairly being singled out as a White House target after already sustaining $2 billion in cuts during 2004 and 2005 budgets.
GOP uneasy, too. It’s just not committee Dems that Goodlatte must soothe. Several of his GOP buddies are livid over the president’s ag numbers, too.
On Feb. 15, Goodlatte himself griped about the White House’s plan to poach $300 million of USDA’s $1.2 billion food aid budget to buy food overseas rather than in the United States.
While the backbiting is bipartisan, Congressional Republicans are in a tight spot; they must lead.
But the president’s proposals are so imbalanced that Congress truly could cut every budget item except the Big Five – defense, homeland security, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – and the remaining 2006 budget would still weigh in at a negative $75 billion.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that when off-budget items like the White House plan for Social Security, its Feb. 14 supplemental request for $82 billion more in defense spending and future tax cut pledges are added in, the next 10 years will flood the federal budget with $2.85 trillion more in new red ink.
That’s not all.
If the president and Congress carry through on previous promises to revise the Alternative Minimum Tax, now nicking middle class taxpayers more than its intended target, the non-taxed rich, the 10-year debt soars to $3.6 trillion.
And that monster stays at $3.6 trillion only if Congress adopts every cut requested by the White House and doesn’t provide one nickel more for Iraq or Afghanistan after 2006.
These numbers are not abstract or political. They are real and they carry real consequences.
Like a coming decade of higher interest rates, greater inflation, slower economic growth and annual $1 trillion trade deficits.
All will smack farmers and ranchers far harder than today’s proposed program cuts.
We – you and I – know it, and we know it not because I’m a Republican or you’re a Democrat. We know it because we can add.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at agcomm@sbcglobal.net.)

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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