Wardrobe, and budget, dysfunction

Cancel the remainder of the 2004 Pulitzer competition for best fiction. By acclamation, first prize goes to Justin Timberlake and his Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” lie, the greatest piece of American make-believe since Huckleberry Finn.

Pulling in a close second, though, is the White House’s 2005 budget, a whopping $2.4 trillion fish story.

Even the Bush-embracing Wall Street Journal said that fat carp “relies on fiscal sleight of hand” and “gimmicks.” More like budget malfunction.

Not even there. The easiest malfunction to spot is one that isn’t even there, the estimated $50 billion cost of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005. If added to the administration’s estimated deficit for fiscal year 2005, the proposed budget’s red ink rises from $364 billion to $414 billion.

And that’s only if everything else runs as smoothly as, say, a choreographed Super Bowl half time show.

Restraint. But, claim the Bushies, the 2005 tab shows restraint when compared to FY 2004 deficit of at least $521 billion.

Not quite. When the FY ’03 shortfall is combined with ’04 and ’05′s forecast messes, this White House will have piled up $1.26 trillion of new debt in three short years.

The latter two years alone will add nearly $900 billion to the fed’s already-overflowing $7 trillion red ink bucket.

Hard to understand. Unlike the 2005 budget, $7 trillion is a hard number that’s easy to understand: It’s $27,500 of debt per American regardless of age. It also means that the biggest percentage increase -14 percent – of any line item in the 2005 budget is interest on the federal debt.

Put another way, the interest cost on the 2005 federal deficit, at $178 billion, is more than twice the USDA’s proposed budget. In 2005, USDA is forecast to receive “just” $82 billion after sustaining the largest budget cut of any federal agency, $720 million.

Big hole. A closer look at USDA’s 2005 budget shows just how big of a hole the Bushies have placed the country in since January 2001.

First, three-fourths of proposed 2005 ag spending, or $61.2 billion, is mandatory spending. As such, most is automatic unless altered by an act of Congress. The biggest chunk, 77 percent or $47 billion, goes to food aid programs like Food Stamps and the School Lunch Program.

(The proposed Bush budget estimates 24.9 million Americans will qualify for some type of federal food assistance in FY 2005, a 26 percent jump since 2001, another dismal fact for the Bushies never discuss.)

Limited funding. Since mandatory spending is mostly cast in concrete, the bulk of the $720 million in proposed cuts must be sliced from discretionary spending, or the 25 percent of USDA’s budget that is not on autopilot.

That means cuts to rural development programs, limited funding for innovative programs like the Conservation Security Program and slicing $64 million from agricultural research. But that’s only if the 2005 ag budget is to be believed at all.

Gimmicks. Consider two gimmicks buried in the fine print before you decide.

First, USDA again pencils in an often-asked-for, never-enacted meatpacker user fee to cover overtime and holiday pay for government meat inspections. Will meatpackers cough up $124 million in user fees? In a pig’s eye.

Second, USDA’s budget adds about $300 million to the discretionary spending pot by zeroing out “member initiatives” – pork barrel projects – in 2005. Yea, right. Congress will give up these larded perks when one-eyed pigs fly.

Adding up. By themselves, however, those two falsehoods add more than $400 million of rubber to the 2005 ag budget. More importantly, they also point to the single greatest truth in the overall budget plan: The first liar doesn’t stand a chance.

Or, as one ag economist suggested when we discussed USDA’s 2005 budget, “If the ag department’s reduced budget has this many holes in it, how many holes are in the budgets of departments that got increases?”

Plenty, of course. So much that even the president’s most ardent Republican supporters are laughing – albeit nervously – at the White House’s cracked numbers, cooked books and evaporating credibility.

In fact, the only thing more dysfunctional – malfunctional? – than a Janet-Michael Jackson family reunion is a White House budget.

(The author is a freelance ag journalist who lives in Delavan, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at: AGuebert@worldnet.att.net.)

© 2004 ag comm

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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