Money-Grubbing Games

SYNOPSIS: Once again Pinnochio Bush lies to New York and the elderly in order to line the pockets of his puppetmasters. Giupetto better buy an annuity

First there is a promise. Then there is no promise. Then there is a promise until your attention is diverted again.

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, before George W. Bush began his stratospheric ascent in the polls and just before his first post-terror visit to New York he made a personal promise: The city would receive at least $20 billion in reconstruction aid. At the time everyone thought that was a floor, not a ceiling.

Then a funny thing happened: Only $11 billion in aid to the city was actually budgeted. I wrote about this in a column last November titled "The 55-percent solution" but was lambasted by critics, who insisted that of course Mr. Bush would honor his promise.

Now we have the Bush administration's $2.1 trillion budget proposal. Strange to say, it contains no additional aid to New York. It seems that the bucks stop here, at 55 percent of the original commitment.

New York legislators were quick to react, and demanded that Mitch Daniels, the White House budget director, explain the absence. Mr. Daniels first responded that he intended to count $5 billion in relief to victims of Sept. 11 as part of the aid package a clear violation of everyone's understanding of what the promise meant. Then he lashed out at New York's representatives, saying, "It's strange to me to treat this as a little money-grubbing game."

The White House quickly tried to undo the damage. Mr. Daniels retracted his remarks, and Mr. Bush reiterated his promise to provide $20 billion just in time to have another photo op with New York police officers and firefighters. But the money is still not in the budget. And that fact together with the fact that Mr. Daniels's initial remarks surely represented his true feelings says volumes about the administration's priorities.

To place the stiffing of New York in context, you need to realize that when it comes to tax cuts and military spending, the Bush administration's budget is an exercise in unrestrained self-indulgence. There is a lot of stirring rhetoric, warning the nation that this is a time of war, in which everyone must make sacrifices but this austerity does not extend to the wealthiest few percent of the population, who will not only get the lion's share of the future tax cuts already written into law, but would get most of the additional $600 billion in tax cuts the administration now proposes. (Actually it's about $1 trillion without the accounting tricks, but who's counting?)

And while there is much talk of hard choices, the administration seems loath to make any choices at all when it comes to defense spending. Does a subsidiary of the Carlyle Group have a 70-ton artillery piece that made sense, if it ever did, only in the cold-war era? We'll buy it. Do two competing contractors offer advanced fighters designed to fight a nonexistent next generation of MIG's? We'll take both.

But there are big cuts elsewhere, and big diversions of resources that will force future cuts. You know about the diversion of the Social Security surplus to cover deficits in the rest of the government deficits that would be much smaller if the administration would forgo some of those tax cuts, and would vanish if it also exercised some restraint in its weapons purchases. But did you know that the administration has budgeted $300 billion less for Medicare than the Congressional Budget Office says is needed to maintain current benefits never mind add-ons like prescription drug insurance? It's unclear whether the administration actually intends to deny medical care to retirees, or is simply trying to hide the sheer scale of the looming fiscal disaster.

The broken promise to New York is actually small change compared with all of this. And that, in a way, makes it puzzling. Since the budget is already deeply in deficit for the foreseeable future, why not put it another $9 billion in deficit for one year, and avoid offering critics such an easy target?

One answer is that terror or no terror, key Republican lawmakers retain an abiding dislike for the Big Apple and this administration never offends its supporters on the right.

But my guess is that it comes down to sheer arrogance. Buoyed by those approval ratings, this administration simply believes that its former promises don't matter. After all, don't people know that there's a war on?

Originally published in The New York Times, 2.8.02