The meat of last night’s State of the Union address came mostly at the beginning, when President Bush trumpeted his achievements on foreign policy and the prospects of the economy. But almost as important was what wasn’t said. Apart from “an additional $23 million for schools that want to use drug-testing” and “a four-year, $300 million Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative,” there were no dollar amounts attached to new spending proposals– quite a change from the billions the President proposed last year. That alone made the speech seem a bit more on the “conservative” side than the “compassionate” side, and reflected a tacit acknowledgment of the growing disapproval the president is generating on his own side of the fence. Still, the President offered little of substance to those who are worried about runaway spending.
Bush promised to “limit the burden of government on this economy by acting as good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars,” with a budget “limiting the growth in discretionary spending to less than 4 percent.” But don’t put much stock in that number; at best it depends on Congress holding the line on spending, and at worst it refers to budget authority rather than outlays– that is, substituting the hypothetical spending accounts of government agencies, which can be shifted from year to year, for the actual amount spent within the year. Global Crossing went bankrupt after attempting a similar accounting trick. The Heritage Foundation estimates that actual outlays in 2004 will grow by 10 percent.
The tension between Bush and Leviathan Wranglers is nothing new, but the criticism from the right of Republicans’ fiscal policy has reached a crescendo. The leaders of six conservative groups — Heritage, Coalitions for America, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Citizens Against Government Waste, the Club for Growth, and the National Taxpayers Union — held a press conference last week denouncing the pork-laden monstrosity of an Omnibus Appropriations bill currently before the Senate. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal, citing Heritage and the Club for Growth, echoed the sentiment in an editorial titled Drunken GOP Sailors, calling on Bush to veto the bill if it gets to his desk
This would be the first veto of Bush’s presidency. At a roundtable in Washington last week held by the libertarian-conservative America’s Future Foundation, Jim Pinkerton of Newsday and Gene Healy of the Cato Institute (and, often, of this website) were harder on the Bush record than Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, but all agreed that Bush has seen plenty on his desk worth vetoing. (Every president since John Quincy Adams has used the veto at least once.) A representative from the Republican National Committee (a last-minute substitution for the RNC’s Communications Director, Jim Dyke) was reduced to arguing that Bush’s reluctance to fight with the veto pen was due to a commitment to “change the tone” in Washington. The whole room burst out laughing.
The word “veto” did show up in Bush’s speech, however. “Any attempts to limit the choices of our seniors or to take away their prescription drug coverage under Medicare will meet my veto.” Alas, that’s not exactly the kind of veto threat that conservatives were hoping for.