Taxes, spending and the issue of party stereotypes

By By Kathleen Gurr and By Kathleen Gurr

By Kathleen Gurr

Regardless of the issue, the stereotype remains: Liberals are the big spenders and Conservatives are the penny pinchers. Many Americans consider Republicans the fiscally responsible party, frugal at every turn and cautious about all government ventures, fighting to keep recklessly spending Democrats from squandering away America’s hard-earned tax dollars. If that’s true, with a Republican president and both houses of Congress in GOP control, it follows that we should breathe a sigh of relief-finally, some responsible, thrifty conservatives in charge of the nation’s purse strings.

Why, then, are Bush’s own officials predicting a shocking $455 billion budget deficit this year (the highest U.S. deficit ever), and up to $500 billion next year? The federal budget is in shambles, and America isn’t sure whom to blame.

The fiscal stereotypes of each party aren’t true. Both Republicans and Democrats accuse each other of reckless spending and fiscal irresponsibility, but neither party works to curb spending-they’re just fighting to channel federal dollars in different directions. Federal spending, then, is less about tangible dollar amounts and more about priorities.

When the discussion is focused on tax cuts, the administration justifies deficit spending as a temporary necessity to jump start the economy. When the discussion shifts to domestic programs (like health-care reform, welfare or education, to name a few), the administration’s tune changes to one of fiscal discipline-it’s unfortunate, they argue, but there’s just not enough money to go around.

Realistically, if a proposed $726 billion tax cut directly benefiting the wealthy could fit in the budget, especially with the government already in deficit, and facing a war with Iraq with no estimate of its final cost, a measly $100 million could keep Americorps, the volunteer community service program, functioning effectively.

Similarly, if the president can justify a war with potentially staggering costs while proposing a $223 million cut for the Department of Education’s national after-school programs to prevent teen delinquency, something is wrong.

It sounds like the “fiscally responsible” conservatives are fine with record-setting deficits, as long as the money is spent on the military or the wealthy. Deficit spending on programs that actually help society at large, it seems, might be too much to ask.

For a president who chirps about investing in America’s future, it is both condescending and nonsensical to cut federal education funding when states are in fiscal crises and propose enormous tax cuts for the wealthy in the same breath. Likewise, it is illogical and patronizing to give the Department of Defense a blank check while denying millions of people unemployment benefits in a sagging economy.

Running a federal deficit is never a good idea, but spending like crazy in some areas and slashing funding in others is one way for the Bush administration to show its true colors-it’s not about spending, it’s about priorities. Bush’s compassionate conservatism in practice, refusing to help unemployed Americans and denying at-risk students adequate resources, looks pretty cruel to me.

All this talk about priorities is ironic considering President Bush initially touted fiscal responsibility as one of his top concerns. When he took office, his officials projected we would have a $335 billion surplus this year. Instead, we face record deficits.

Obviously the war on terrorism and a struggling economy brought conditions that no one could have predicted, but earlier this year, the president’s budget predicted a deficit of less than $300 billion. That figure has ballooned in the last six months and shows no signs of slowing down.

Democrats, long seen as the big spenders, are now the ones shouting warnings against this soaring deficit. The long-term effects of Bush’s spending will be startling. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has warned against the increasing the deficit, urging caution as 75 million baby boomers reach retirement age expecting Social Security and Medicare. If the nation continues operating with this level of deficit, more baby boomers straining the system could translate into tax increases for generations to come.

The biting wit is overwhelming: The president may spend enough money cutting taxes that he could actually force America to increase taxes in the end.

If today’s record deficit spending were to be used to invest in the future (say, increasing the maximum award size for Pell Grant recipients, making college more affordable for the average American and creating a better educated work force, or perhaps investing in dropout prevention programs that will decrease crime along with welfare and incarceration costs in decades to come), this threat of the deficit hanging over our heads in the future might not seem so ominous. Instead, the deficit came from absurdly large, unnecessary tax cuts and spending priorities that don’t reflect our society’s interest or concerns, and our fiscal future now looks dismal.

The national debt is exploding with Republicans at the wheel. Evaluating the administration’s spending habits reveals disturbing priorities. Fiscal discipline has lost its teeth, but a piercing double standard remains: President Bush feels deficit spending is justified when it serves Republican interests, inexcusable when it doesn’t. A real investment in this country’s future demands a big-picture solution: Curb the soaring deficit and support proven social programs instead of spending recklessly on less meaningful concerns.

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