Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Smoke and Mirrors Behind the Smoke and Mirrors

Lots of posturing going on as those embarrassing fiscal numbers the Congress dutifully avoided crunching all year are coming down to the wire. Trying to beat the odds and still look statesmanlike before the coming elections, the old war-horses in the Senate are breathing hard, but it’s a muddy track.


HorseraceThe pleasure of watching the House and Senate round the far turn and whip their way home is soured by the fact that they’ve left us in the grandstand with nothing but two-dollar tickets. It’s turned into a race where the favorites are carrying too much weight and that perennial dark-horse, Increased Spending, looks all but sure to cross the finish line three or four lengths in the lead.


Desperation makes men of the boys. It’s smoke and mirrors time (once again) in the Congress.


Over on the Senate side, they’re taking up the 2007 budget. Delicately, with two-fingers no doubt, due to the smell. The Senatorial harrumphing and speechifying can be heard way over yonder in the distant and less dandified halls of the House, as a sort of echo resonating ominously over the $91 billion emergency spending bill House members stir like a pot of stew.


Boil, bubble, toil and trouble, get money down on the daily-double. Congressmen depend upon 2007 being emergency-free, a hope more seriously desired than a cure for war and an answer to worldwide hunger—and just about as likely.


RepublicanleadersRepublican leaders insist, because that’s what the GOP does best when it holds a majority, they can bring down the deficit without increasing taxes.


Republicans used to be good about holding down expenses, but we have government these days that’s thrown its jockey and is running free. Six years into their first eight of total control over the reins of government in half a century, Republican leaders are shocked to find they’ve out-spent and under-taxed fifty years of Democrats.


The last president to balance a budget, engineer a surplus and pay down (instead of quadruple) the national indebtedness was not Ronald Reagan. He was a Democrat. Republicans tried to impeach him. Maybe they can still find his phone number for a word or two of advice and counsel.


SmokemirrorsCranking the smoke machine, this last year the GOP kept the deficit under (or maybe just a smidge over) $400 billion and, true to their principles, promises and conservative base, they didn’t raise taxes. What they did raise was the unemployment rate,  trade defecit and national debt.


Congress muddled through that debatable achievement with the smoke of cuts to education, environmental standards, health care, poverty programs and the mirror of further tax cuts for the rich.


Mirroring is the new trickle-down. You give a big tax cut to Bill and Melissa Gates and, when you hold a mirror up to it, it reflects enormous savings for all those hardscrabble survivors on the bottom of the heap. The leadership has proven this to be both more direct and more timely than trickle-down. It’s a sort of gush-down, flushing that big entitlement toilet in the sky and watching in shock and awe as


  • Gutted student-loan programs swirl down the drain

  • Medicare and Medicaid for the poorest Americans swept away

  • Head Start and No Child Left Behind programs unfund themselves

  • Aid to Katrina victims is manipulated like the shell-game it has become

  • The back-wash of dirtier air and filthier water dims the western skies

Smoke and mirrors have kept us from noticing the most devastating of congressional secrets. Lean in and listen up, your congressman or Senator isn’t likely to share this with you.  Military spending, interest on our debt and various untouchable entitlement programs have left Congress with precious few financial options. Shhhhhhhhhh, keep this on the quiet, but there’s only 20% of the budget money left to fiddle with. It's called discretionary. I call it shrinking.


Democrats had a lot to do with it. We didn’t get there without bi-partisan spilt milk, over which no one cried.


John_wayneSo anyway, onward and upward, our Republican Senators have a plan to ease themselves back into the saddle of fiscal responsibility, a place where they used to sit deep and comfortable. John Wayne may be dead, but his gunslingin’ Republican image is coming back. They’re going to ‘cap’ that remaining discretionary 20% at $420 billion next year. A little more smoke please and a slow drum-roll, maybe a distant muted trumpet.


Under their 2007 budget plan, discretionary spending on environmental and natural resource programs would fall 20 percent. Thud. Spending on community and regional development programs would be slashed by 32 percent. Thud again. Even ‘politically sensitive’ transportation spending would be cut by 17 percent. Thud, thud, thud.


But the really cool part is that Bill and Melissa Gates won’t have to pony up an extra dime. We can wreck the environment, choke off development across the nation, let the potholes and rusty bridges go entirely to hell and not ask anything of our shiniest American image--the Richest Man In the World.


That’s the smoke and mirrors behind the smoke and mirrors.
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