The $2.13 Trillion Dollar Man

February 10, 2002

by John K. Bates

Our Conservative President has stunned Congress with his fiscal year 2003 budget. According to the Wall Street Journal, official Washington is apoplectic because they will now be forced to decide on spending priorities. Our Conservative President’s record $2.13 trillion dollar budget - a 3.7 percent increase (nearly twice the rate of inflation) over last year’s budget- will supposedly make the bloated bureaucrats in “Fat City” (as the WSJ put it) suffer just like the rest of us during these tight fiscal times. Hurrah and hooray for America in general and conservatives in particular. Fiscal sanity has finally been restored to the land.

Let us take a look at some individual components of this fiscal sanity (all numbers are from the White House web site.) Defense has widely been reported as the big winner in 2003, and with an increase of 12 percent it certainly is. Health and Human Services - feel good programs for the Oprah crowd - gets a whopping 9 percent increase in times of nearly zero inflation. Federal education spending - once the top target for elimination by conservatives - receives a 5 percent bump. The Smithsonian gets 6 percent more, and Housing and Urban Development gets 9 percent extra. Presumably, these are some of the costs of the “compassionate conservatism” that Our Conservative President has talked much about. There are a few losers. Spending for the Department of Agriculture - including those wonderful beekeeper subsidies and the ever-popular ethanol program that conservatives rant against - decreases very slightly. A handful of minor budgets (Labor, the Army Corps of Engineers, Justice) actually show significant decline, though in every case that decline is 10 percent or less.

The biggest winner of all (on a percentage basis) is FEMA, one of Bill Clinton’s favorite stomping grounds. This bloated department gets 114 percent more money in Fiscal Year 2003, following a more modest (but still staggering) 26 percent increase in 2002. These increases are not for so-called “homeland security” - which is included in the defense budget - though we must presume such a massive increase has something to do with emergency terror response. Even with this, it is obvious that Our Conservative President finds great need for a department most famous for declaring Florida a disaster area days before Hurricane Floyd proceeded to miss the coast in 1999.

Digging deeper, we find that some of the announced “cuts” are in reality nothing more than reductions in mandatory outlays. The Department of Agriculture will see its reductions come from mandatory outlays and credit activity, which is a nice way of saying lower interest rates reduce the cost of issuing certain loans, and hence reduce the budget. Discretionary income in the department - those items that Our Conservative President actually has freedom to change - shows an increase of about 3 percent. Our Conservative President further promises to “fully fund the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children,” “maintain a safety net for farmers,” “improve stewardship of our soil, water, and forestry resources,” and “focus on housing infrastructure and other economic assistance to rural communities.” The Department of Agriculture will be busy in many corners of American life. No mention is made of any effort to question the appropriateness of these programs, or to eventually phase them out so that people can better take care of their own affairs. We must conclude these programs will be around forever.

The rest of the budget is similar. Spending which is “mandatory” will generally go up, though not by as much as the discretionary spending that Our Conservative President has control over. The National Endowment for the Arts receives “a slight increase” to $117 million of our tax dollars, while its sister agency the National Endowment for the Humanities gets $127 million. At one point these programs were the bane of conservatives who rightly called for their elimination. Obviously, Our Conservative President is different from past conservatives and sees great value in them instead.

Even where cuts are relatively (compared to the rest of the budget) dramatic, such as in the Federal Highway Administration, they end up doing nothing more than negating a portion of the gains made in the last four years of the Clinton Administration. In fact, there is only one program (the Corps of Engineers) that has averaged a decline in the past five years. Everything else - education, health and human services, transportation, the NEA, etc - has shown an average net increase for the past five years, with the great majority of the average increases well above the average rate of inflation. This is akin to an executive taking a pay cut to a level of pay that still keeps up with inflation for five years. It hurts in a way, and maybe the new Lexus has to wait until next year. But painful it is not. Our Conservative President, elected by conservatives to roll back the massive growth of government during past eight years of a Liberal President, apparently believes that the government added during those eight years is worth the cost.

There are many caveats here. Our Conservative President is not, as this space has repeated endlessly, ultimately responsible for the budget or for spending. That is Congress’ purview; the President’s role is advisory until such time as he needs to sign or veto a bill. Democrats control the Senate and the Republicans enjoy just a whisper-thin majority in the House, making compromise inevitable. Our Conservative President did manage to keep his “whopping” tax cut from last year (though revenues are still coming in at record levels). It is curious to note, however, that there are plenty of revenue increases in the 2003 budget in the form of increased “user fees.” These presumably aren’t tax increases, even if they look like tax increases and even if the net effect of them will be to transfer money from taxpayers’ pockets to the government. Because they are not “tax increases,” Our Conservative President is not in violation of his “over my dead body” pledge to not allow rollback of his cuts. Things are good: the budget is done, it’s forcing those bloated bureaucrats to make tough choices and it’s cutting taxes. All is well in the Conservative land.

President Bush has sold out the conservative cause yet again. Yes, the Democrats control the Senate. Yes, the media loves government and as a result many Americans think government is wonderful. And yes, past Republicans have been slaughtered at the polls for trying to cut government. But other Republicans - notably Ronald Reagan - faced these same problems and not only overcame them, but flourished. Mr. Reagan was forced to sign laws increasing government, but he never lost sight of his belief that government was at its core the wrong solution. “Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem” is one of Mr. Reagan’s most famous quotes. Mr. Bush smiles when he tells us all the wonderful things government will do for us and has never been comfortable with Reagan’s style of skepticism. If Mr. Bush is being forced by politics to increase government, he should say so outright while at the same time expressing his goals of reducing government some day. That is the Reagan - and the true conservative - way. Mr. Bush - Our Conservative President - does not do this because he does not believe it. He sadly believes more government is good government, so long as the right people are running it.

Someone on the Wall Street Journal editorial board ought to go talk to ex-Enron employees about making do with less. This monstrosity of a budget is far from frugal, cuts very little from anything, and will force tough choices out of no one. Most departments get increases in spending many times the rate of inflation; the entire budget as a whole comes in at nearly 200% the rate of inflation. This budget is not at all about hard choices. It is about politicians being in power, spending other peoples’ money, and constructing more and more government programs to make people feel good so that the politicians will get re-elected to spend more of the people’s money. It’s bad enough that George W. Bush is happy and proud to be the $2.13 Trillion Dollar Man. It is even sadder when conservatives will not call him on the carpet for it.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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For more of John's articles, visit his archives.

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