A Legacy of Red Ink

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, February 5, 2008; 12:18 PM

President Bush used to say it all the time: "The job of the President is to confront problems, not to pass them on to future Presidents and future generations."

But his legacy will be precisely the opposite. He will have created problems that he then passed on to his successors unresolved.

Exhibit A is, of course, Iraq. But Exhibit B may well be the budget.

This morning's editorial pages tell the story well. The Washington Post editorial board writes: "Seven long years ago, . . . George W. Bush grappled with the supposed challenge of dealing with a projected surplus of $5.6 trillion over the next decade. The president proposed to pay down the debt by $2 trillion during that time, which, he said, was as much as could be responsibly redeemed. . . .

"The final budget of Mr. Bush's presidency arrived yesterday, and the contrast between then and now could hardly be more sobering. . . . The $725 billion surplus once projected for the coming fiscal year (2009) has evaporated. In its place is a $407 billion deficit -- an unrealistically rosy number that omits billions in likely war spending and is artificially reduced by including the $200 billion Social Security surplus. . . .

"Mr. Bush inherited a potential windfall -- and squandered it. The next president will inherit his mess."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "President Bush's 2009 budget is a grim guided tour through his misplaced priorities, failed fiscal policies and the disastrous legacy that he will leave for the next president. And even that requires you to accept the White House's optimistic accounting, which seven years of experience tells us would be foolish in the extreme.

"With Mr. Bush on his way out the door and the Democrats in charge of Congress, it is not clear how many of the president's priorities, unveiled on Monday, will survive. . . .

"What will definitely outlast Mr. Bush for years to come are big deficits, a military so battered by the Iraq war that it will take hundreds of billions of dollars to repair it and stunted social programs that have been squeezed to pay for Mr. Bush's misguided military adventure and his misguided tax cuts for the wealthy. . . .

"Mr. Bush will leave his successor a daunting list of problems: the ever-rising cost of health care, the tens of millions of uninsured, a military that is desperately in need of rebuilding. Thanks to Mr. Bush's profligate ways, it also means that the next president will have even less money for solving them."

The Boston Globe editorial board writes that "the budget is a statement of his legacy, which can be summed up in five words: wars, tax cuts, budget deficits."

What the Next President Inherits

Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "The new deficit projections 'clearly make a problem not only for the next Congress but also the next couple of Congresses, and the next president, too,' said G. William Hoagland, a longtime GOP Senate aide and budget expert who is now a health-care lobbyist.

"'A whole bunch of things they were putting off and hiding under the rug all these years are starting to pop back up,' said Austan Goolsbee, an economist at the University of Chicago and chief economic adviser to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). 'It's clear they're trying to shove as much of this as possible on to the next guy.'

"White House officials reject such criticism, saying they have tried to put forward ideas for confronting the long-term costs of Medicare and Social Security but repeatedly have been stymied by Democrats in Congress. White House budget director Jim Nussle told reporters yesterday that he remains hopeful there can be bipartisan progress on budget issues this year, noting that Democrats and Republicans have cooperated recently on the economic stimulus plan."

Abramowitz and Weisman go over some numbers: "[W]hile the deficit measured against the size of the economy will be far from a record, it will come after six straight years of red ink. The federal debt will have climbed to $9.7 trillion by the time Bush leaves office, a rise of $4 trillion during his administration, according to the budget.

"Interest on the debt next year will total $260 billion, about what will be spent by the departments of Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, and Justice combined. . . .

"To reach his deficit forecast, the president assumes economic growth this year of 2.7 percent, a full percentage point higher than the Congressional Budget Office estimate and much higher than the forecasts of some private economists, who believe the nation may already be in a recession."

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times that Bush's proposal "has little chance of surviving in a Democratic Congress. But the problems it lays out will survive and grow, presenting tough choices for the next administration.

"How, for example, will the next president rein in the cost of retirement and health programs? What will he or she do about tax increases on Americans when Mr. Bush's tax cuts expire at the end of 2010, or when the alternative minimum tax propels millions of taxpayers into higher brackets each year?

"Beyond these familiar traps, how will a Republican president pay for further promised tax cuts or a Democratic president pay for a sweeping health care overhaul without increasing the red ink left by Mr. Bush?"

John D. McKinnon and Michael M. Phillips write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Documents accompanying the budget blueprint released yesterday by the White House . . . show that Mr. Bush's signature tax cuts would cost the government more than $2 trillion in their second decade, nearly double the estimate of $1.3 trillion over 10 years when Congress approved the first installment of the cuts in 2001."

Two Views of History

House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) said in a statement yesterday: "The President took office with an advantage that no president in recent history has enjoyed -- a budget in surplus, $236 billion in surplus in fiscal year 2000. . . .

"Democrats warned the President not to bet the budget on a blue-sky forecast of the economy. He spurned our advice, and in effect, told the country that we could have guns, butter, and tax cuts too -- and never mind the deficits. By the year 2004, the surplus was gone, vanished, and replaced by a deficit of $413 billion, the largest in American history in nominal terms.

"Ever since turning record surpluses to record deficits, the Administration has assured us that good news was just around the corner; but we have turned the corner, and the news is not good at all. The five largest deficits in American history (2004, 2008, 2009, 2003, and 2005) all have occurred under this Administration's policies. When the President took office, the national debt stood at $5.7 trillion; today it is $9.2 trillion and rising, projected to increase to $9.7 trillion by the time this Administration leaves office, up by $4 trillion in eight years. This is the legacy our children and grandchildren will inherit from the fiscal policy of this Administration. . . .

"Far from proposing a plan to fix the budget, this Administration proposes policies that worsen it, and with little compunction, leaves the consequences for the next administration and future generations to correct."

But in a press briefing yesterday, White House budget director Jim Nussle said the grim numbers aren't Bush's fault.

Q: "In the big picture, isn't the President leaving the next President a budget that's in far worse shape than the one he inherited?"

Nussle: "Well, if all you read was the budget that he inherited and this budget here today, you probably missed about eight years of pretty important stuff that was going on in the country. I mean, obviously, you wouldn't have known about what happened with the attacks of September 11th; the emergency spending that went into dealing with homeland security, an entire new department that was created to protect our country and which has protected our country since that attack; a global war on terror; two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq; the emergencies with Katrina and the tsunamis."

Irrelevant From the Get-Go

Jim Abrams writes for the Associated Press: "Democrats, already looking ahead to the next White House occupant, quickly relegated President Bush's final budget to the ash bin of history, saying his proposals to rein in spending on programs are untenable and won't happen.

"Even the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, invoked a note of reality. 'Let's face it. This budget is done with the understanding that nobody's going to be taking a long, hard look at it.'. . . .

"'The only real significance of the president's budget is to serve as a legacy of his disastrous fiscal management over the last seven years,' said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, one of two Senate Democrats competing for their party's presidential nomination this year."

Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "Slumping revenues and the cost of an economic rescue package will combine to produce a huge jump in the deficit to $410 billion this year and $407 billion in 2009, the White House says, just shy of the record $413 billion set four years ago.

"But even those figures are optimistic since they depend on rosy economic forecasts and leave out the full costs of the war in Iraq. The White House predicts the economy will grow at a 2.7 percent clip this year, far higher than congressional and private economists expect, and the administration's $70 billion figure for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is simply a placeholder until the next president takes office.

"Bush's lame-duck budget plan is likely to be ignored by Congress, which is controlled by Democrats and already looking ahead to November elections. His long-term projections are mostly academic since he's leaving office next January."

Phoning It In?

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "'It's almost a pro forma exercise,' said Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. Referring to the White House, Mr. Gregg said, 'I don't think they even worked very hard at it.' . . .

"The 2009 budget, Mr. Bush's last before leaving office, was also the first to be submitted to lawmakers entirely electronically, prompting some Democrats to joke that the president did not print up copies because he had run out of red ink."

The War Budget

Mark Silva blogs for the Tribune newspapers about the "war games" the White House is playing: "[T]he White House, which . . . likes to save much of its funding requests for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for 'supplemental' mid-year budget requests, has included just $70 billion for the wars in that 2009 budget submitted to Congress this week. The White House also concedes that the $70 [b]illion is only a 'piecemeal' part of what will be needed, a 'bridge' for wars that most 'certainly' will cost more. The administration already is seeking nearly $200 billion for the wars in 2008. . . .

"'The war stuff, I have found beyond shameful for years now,' says Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. ' This is just utterly dishonest. It is openly in your face dishonest. If you want to have a debate about national priorities, there is nothing wrong with that. When you manipulate the costs of the war year after year and try to hide it . . . by trying to throw it into emergency spending when it's not an emergency . . . it goes beyond the usual budget legerdemain.'"

Silva writes: "[H]ad the White House added a much more likely war number - say $100 billion more than the $70 billion it has posted for the year - that projected deficit would be even greater. . . . A new, half-trillion-dollar record deficit."

Another Thing to Keep in Mind

But wait. Remember Social Security?

Economist and blogger Brad DeLong writes that Bush's $407 billion deficit projection "doesn't give a full and fair account of the magnitude of what can only be called a clown show. The headline deficit number ought to be $738 billion--we have a $331 billion Social Security surplus for 2009, and an honest and honorable administration would be using that surplus to pay down the government debt in order to get ready for the challenges that our aging population will pose for the federal budget over the next two generations. The headline number shouldn't be 2.7% of GDP; it should be 4.8% of GDP. That is how far Bush fiscal policy is from what a prudent and responsible fiscal policy should be."

DeLong explains: "We want to run a budget that is in surplus during boom, in deficit during recession, that borrows in order to fund investments that benefit the future, and that runs surpluses and pays down debt in order to fund future expenditures that benefit today's taxpayers. The Bushies have not done that."

FISA Watch

Tim Starks writes for Congressional Quarterly: "The Senate may be forced to postpone until much later this week any roll-call votes on amendments to a bill to overhaul electronic surveillance rules, thwarting efforts by Democratic leaders to complete action on the measure quickly.

"Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had earlier said votes would begin Monday on the first of a dozen pending amendments that will require roll calls. But Monday evening, after a cloture vote on a motion to proceed to an economic stimulus package (HR 5140), Reid said Republicans would insist on running out the clock on 30 hours of debate on the motion itself. That would delay further work on the stimulus bill -- and the surveillance bill. . . .

"Reid said 'it's obvious' that Republicans were trying to delay Senate action on the legislation 'until the last minute,' so that once the bill is passed the House will have to accept it without change or faces political charges that Democrats were endangering national security. . . .

"The first amendment debated Monday would give the FISA court power to review how well the executive branch has complied with 'minimization' guidelines. 'Minimization' is a term for steps the government takes to minimize retention of sensitive information about U.S. citizens that it collects incidentally.

"'I know the administration fears and despises judicial oversight,' said the amendment's author, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. 'That is no reason why the Senate should follow them down that path.'"

Blogger emptywheel has video of Whitehouse's remarks. The senator observed that the importance of our foreign intelligence activities is not what's at issue. The Bush administration, Whitehouse said, "expends all its rhetorical energy on a topic where we all agree. But it has largely ignored the issue that has been central to our debate: On what terms will this administration spy on Americans?"

Newsweek's Seth Colter Walls interviews Sen. Russel Feingold about the White House-supported legislation.

Feingold: "Whenever I present this to citizens, they understand the stakes. . . . When it's framed correctly, I think it shocks people when they realize the enormity of it. They think it only applies if you're talking to a terrorist. This is not that at all. This is about the bulk sucking-up of information by the government."

Walls: "How has the debate overall come to be framed so incorrectly, as you suggest?"

Feingold: "One reason is that there's been an inadequate response to the Bush-Cheney scare tactics. They've been successful every time -- in the Iraq War, with the Patriot Act -- [in saying] 'If we're not given these powers immediately, we will be attacked.' These are bogus claims. The problem is with many people, including Democrats, who fail to stand up and say, 'We feel just as strongly as you do. And we don't want you invading our privacy without any court review.'"

But Feingold isn't hopeful this time around either: "We're trying to make a record here, and to show who voted for what. My prediction is this thing will go through; it will be challenged and go through the courts. And eventually a Supreme Court with something like seven Republican-appointed judges will strike down the worst parts of it. This is a long-term battle to protect the rights of the American people."

Signing Statements Watch

Bruce Fein writes in a Washington Times opinion column: "Jan. 28, 2008, is a date that will live in congressional infamy. Congress surrendered the power of the purse over national security affairs to the White House.

"President Bush appended a signing statement to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 denying the power of Congress to withhold funds for establishing permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, or to control its oil resources. The statement tacitly averred that Congress was required to appropriate money to support every presidential national security gambit, for example, launching pre-emptive wars anywhere on the planet or breaking and entering homes to gather foreign intelligence. . . .

"Yet Congress acquiesced. It did not pass a resolution disputing Mr. Bush. It did not threaten impeachment. It meekly surrendered its national security relevance. Under the precedent it left undisturbed, the president could flout congressional prohibitions on spending funds to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, to invade North Korea, to conduct military offensives in Iraq, to install an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic, or to assist Taiwan against a Chinese attack.

"A combination of congressional inertness and imbecility has crippled the power of the purse to check executive abuses and craving for perpetual war. Mr. Bush is now crowned with more power than the Stuart kings."

The Billings (Mont.) Gazette editorial board writes: "President Bush's overuse and misuse of presidential signing statements reached a new low last week: He wrote a loophole to obstruct investigations of fraud and waste by private contractors profiting from war. . . .

"After Bush issued his latest signing statement, [Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.] signed onto a bill that would nullify presidential signing statements, becoming the fourth co-sponsor for a bipartisan bill introduced in June by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

"'The president's job is to sign or veto legislation passed by Congress,' Tester said in a press release last week. 'He doesn't get to add small print allowing him to pick and choose what he wants.'

"Specter's Senate Bill 1747 and its House twin (with 58 co-sponsors) assert that Congress has the constitutional authority to write legislation, while the president's role in enacting legislation is limited to signing it or vetoing it. Both bills direct that 'no federal or state court shall rely on or defer to a presidential signing statement as a source of authority.'

"This clarification of constitutional authority is an important matter. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that Bush would sign a law to rein in the executive power he has used so liberally. If he did sign a bill that included provisions of the Presidential Signing Statements Act, would he also issue a signing statement exempting himself from it?

"That prospect is scarcely more absurd than the president saying he might not work with the Commission on Wartime Contracting."

Open Government Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "A Senate committee chairman accused the Bush administration on Monday of undercutting open government with a budget proposal that would have the Justice Department oversee a new office devoted to promoting greater freedom of information.

"Open government advocates joined Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in protesting the budget request, which would repeal language President Bush signed into law a month ago putting the office in the National Archives. The concerns are that the Justice Department has a conflict of interest. . . .

"Leahy said that 'once again, the White House has shown they intend to act contrary to the intent of Congress.'"

Missing E-Mail Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "An advocacy group on Monday sought a criminal probe of the White House over millions of possibly missing e-mails, saying someone may have deliberately deleted them to conceal involvement in a potential crime.

"In a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said the White House also may have violated two federal record-keeping laws, including the Federal Records Act, which carries criminal sanctions for unlawful destruction.

"CREW, which is suing the Executive Office of the President, said over 10 million e-mails from March 2003 to October 2005 are missing. The period coincides with the runup to the Iraq invasion and the leaking by at least three top White House aides of the CIA identity of Valerie Plame."

Whales v. Bush

Marc Kaufman writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration overreached when it sought to limit the Navy's obligations under national environmental laws related to sonar training exercises off California, a federal judge ruled yesterday.

"In a sharply worded decision that will keep the Navy from continuing a series of 14 planned exercises, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper wrote that the Navy and the administration had improperly declared that an emergency would be created if they had to accept court-mandated steps to minimize risk to whales and other sea mammals. Because no real emergency exists, she said, the White House cannot override her decisions and those of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. . . .

"White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, 'We disagree with the judge's decision. We believe the orders are legal and appropriate.' . . .

"Early last month, President Bush signed a waiver exempting the Navy from provisions of the Coastal Zone Management Act after Cooper and the appeals court had concluded that the law required the Navy to do more to protect marine mammals during the sonar exercises. The loud blasts produced during sonar exercises have been shown to disorient some types of whales, leading in some circumstances to strandings and deaths.

"At the same time Bush signed his order, the White House Council on Environmental Quality determined that the Navy did not need to follow the procedures of the National Environmental Policy Act when doing so would cause an emergency situation. . . .

"While Cooper's ruling dealt primarily with the legality of the Navy's 'alternative arrangement' under NEPA, she also raised the possibility that the administration's actions were unconstitutional in general because they implied that White House agencies could routinely overrule federal court decisions. She did not, however, rule on those grounds."

Karl Rove Watch

Reuters reports: "Karl Rove, the strategist behind President George W. Bush's ascendancy to the White House, will join Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel as a contributor starting with Super Tuesday."

Blogger Josh Marshall calls it an "interdepartmental transfer."

Dinner Entertainment

Jeff Dufour and Patrick Gavin write for the Washington Examiner: "Craig Ferguson, host of CBS's 'The Late, Late Show,' has been tapped as the entertainment for this year's White House Correspondents' Association dinner. . . .

"Ferguson seems to be a choice that splits the middle ground between Stephen Colbert and Rich Little. . . .

"WHCA President Ann Compton (from ABC) tells us that, during her recent interview with President George W. Bush, the first thing Bush asked her was, 'Who's the entertainment?' He was reportedly pleased with the answer."

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius and Bill Mitchell on the Bush budget; Joel Pett on permanent bases in Iraq.

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