Sweat the Small Stuff

Looking for signs of fiscal seriousness


Forget about the urine-soaked crucifix and the guy with the bullwhip protruding from his posterior. The National Endowment for the Arts was never mainly about funding the deliberate provocations of avant-garde artists.

The NEA's primary mission is bringing culture to the benighted masses, especially those unfortunate enough to live outside a major metropolitan area. Typical of the noncontroversial projects the NEA likes to brag about is the Shakespeare in American Communities program, under which six theater companies performing four plays will visit "100 small and medium-sized communities in all 50 states."

This is very nice. But is it, strictly speaking, necessary? The NEA's budget, about $122 million this fiscal year, represents something like 1 percent of total arts funding in the U.S. One suspects culture would survive the loss.

By the same token, of course, eliminating the NEA would not have a noticeable impact on a federal budget deficit of more than half a trillion dollars. But as a sign of fiscal seriousness, the treatment given to programs like the NEA is important. If something so clearly dispensable cannot be cut, there's little hope of reining in the biggest federal spending spree in recent memory.

So it's hard to take President Bush's newfound enthusiasm for fiscal restraint seriously when he proposes a 15 percent increase in the NEA's budget, the largest hike the agency has seen in two decades. Most of the new money would pay for a tour called American Masterpieces, which "will encompass multiple art forms and will reach hundreds of cities, large and small, across all 50 states." It's a pet project of the president's wife, who explained the extravagance this way: "American arts are a reflection of our history and the creativity of the human spirit."

This is the mentality that has brought us annual growth in discretionary domestic spending averaging 8.2 percent under Bush, a faster pace than was seen under any of his seven predecessors. If it's good, according to the logic that prevails in the White House and on Capitol Hill, we should throw other people's money at it.

Also if it's bad. The other day, four former surgeons general said there ought to be a nationwide help line for smokers trying to quit. Although several such help lines already exist (maintained by, among others, the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, and the National Cancer Institute), A.P. reports the idea "immediately was put into practice by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson," who "said more than $25 million would be dedicated."

Again, this is penny-ante stuff in the context of a $2.4 trillion federal budget. But the fact that Tommy Thompson seems to have a slush fund out of which he can draw $25 million at will for a redundant (not to mention constitutionally unauthorized) project does not inspire confidence in this administration's ability to fulfill the president's promise to cut the deficit in half by 2009.

The fiscal recklessness carries over to bigger-ticket items. Do multimillionaire retirees need help paying for their prescription drugs? It didn't matter. The president was determined to give it to them, and two months after his wish was realized the official price tag for the first decade was already a third higher than we'd been told.

The administration doesn't even want to talk about the second decade, when the cost of the Medicare drug benefit could hit $2 trillion. A similar short-term focus is apparent in Bush's fiscal plan, which omits $50 billion or so for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan next year, does not take account of expected changes in the alternative minimum tax, and dares not look past 2009, when deficits will balloon again even if Congress implements the president's proposal as is.

Clearly, that's not going to happen. Already Bush has felt compelled to threaten a veto—his very first—in response to a highway bill that would spend more than he proposed. The bill's supporters say the additional spending is necessary to boost the economy.

Where did they get the idea that the aim of transportation spending is not to build necessary infrastructure but to create make-work jobs? According to The New York Times, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta called the administration's spending proposal "an employment bill, with each $1 billion spent on highways generating 47,500 jobs."

I'm not worried that Congress won't follow the Bush administration's fiscal example. I'm worried that it will.