Why Bush's Budget Doesn't Matter

Democrats will ignore the president's budget and submit one of their own.

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President Bush holds a laptop showing the electronic version of the fiscal 2009 budget.

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President Bush's $3.1 trillion budget is likely much ado about nothing, though you wouldn't guess it from the ensuing sound and fury. Senate Majority Leader assailed the proposal as "fiscally irresponsible and highly deceptive." Rep. Nick Rahall, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, labeled it "ludicrous" for its cuts to forest programs and wildlife refuges. And the kindest words that NARAL Pro-Choice America could come up with were: "There is one silver lining to the Bush budget...it's that it is his last one."

The president's budget always serves as vessel for a type of warcraft, giving supporters and opponents an opportunity to blast away over ideological differences. This year is no different, but an election year, the lame-duck status of the president, and the Democratic-controlled Congress are all rendering this 1,000-page document (the first to go online) something of a paper tiger. "It's a lame-duck budget...[that Congress] is basically going to ignore," according to Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The one major exception, she says, is the economic stimulus package, which the White House and Congress generally agree on, though quarrels between the House and Senate have slowed its progress.

The rest of the budget is a recipe for gridlock and mutual outrage. The White House and congressional Republicans are seeking to make Bush's tax cuts permanent, at an expense of $2 trillion to the federal government. That's tough to swallow for Democrats who want to bolster spending on social programs but pledged a "pay-as-you-go" fiscal strategy. They are reluctant to call for ending the cuts as the country teeters on the edge of a recession. Bush also goes after programs dear to Democrats. He trims funding for renewable energy, the Weatherization Assistance Program for low-income homeowners, and clean air grants to states. He targets Amtrak for elimination, and seeks to curtail Medicare.

Democrats aren't likely to play ball, and they'll come up with a budget more to their liking. That's what happened last year. For example, newly empowered Democrats looked at Bush's request for scientific research on climate change and boosted it 26 percent higher, and it gave the Environmental Protection Agency $262 million more than Bush had allocated. But if Democrats come up with a budget that goes too far astray, Bush has proved he'll veto it. "That could mean there's no budget this year," says Chris Edwards, director of tax policy at the CATO Institute. Congress has a history of missing its deadlines anyway. And with a new president coming soon, legislators could pass a series of continuing resolutions to get the country by until 2009. That's not unlikely. "This year, Bush and Democrats in Congress could be so far apart in their priorities," says Edwards, "that it's simply a stalemate." That leaves one thing that Democrats and Republicans are likely to agree on: leaving till tomorrow what should be done today.