Archive for Sunday, February 12, 2006

Military spending shifts burden to states

February 12, 2006


— The federal budget, for all its bewildering detail, sketches a remarkably clear picture of the priorities of any administration. Congress always puts its own stamp on the fiscal design, but when you have a situation where the same party controls both elected branches, as Republicans do now, the modifications tend to be at the margins.

What the budget released last week shows about the Bush-Republican regime is essentially a very simple story. Financing military operations has taken an increasing share of the federal dollar, with health care and Social Security eating up much of what remains.

The squeeze has been felt by a variety of other domestic programs, but especially - and significantly - by those where Washington is supposed to be a partner of state and local governments.

There's been a lot of attention given - and properly so - to the way Uncle Sam has commandeered National Guard troops from the states for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. But an examination of budget trends shows that Washington has been just as effective in siphoning money from the states and cities to help finance our military obligations.

National defense outlays rose from $304.8 billion in 2001 to $535.9 billion in the current fiscal year - an increase of 76 percent. In the same five-year span, health care and Medicare, combined, rose from $389.6 billion to $611 billion, up 57 percent. Social Security and other federal retirement and income-support spending went from $702.8 billion to $915.3 billion, an increase of 30 percent. Everything else the government does - at home and abroad - went from $466 billion in 2001 to $645.6 billion in 2006 - an increase of 39 percent.

During those five years, the public debt rose from $3.3 trillion to $5 trillion - a measure of the degree to which we have failed to pay for the government activities Congress and the president have approved. Even with interest rates declining, the net interest bill has risen from $206.2 billion annually to $220 billion.

What this has meant is that federal aid to states and cities has been short-changed. While federal payments to individuals - through programs like Medicaid, welfare and food stamps, where states share the costs - grew rapidly in this period, those for infrastructure, housing, education and other domestic purposes grew more slowly, even with the addition of large sums for homeland defense.

The trend is particularly striking when it comes to capital expenditures - the financing of highways, airports, mass transit, sewage treatment plants and community development. Measured in constant dollars, they grew only 10 percent in five years - and the federal contribution actually declined when compared to the sums that state and local governments were investing.

This year, once again, the Bush administration has targeted urban programs for cutbacks. Last year, the president tried to kill the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program in its historical home in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and substitute for it an alternative that would be run out of the Commerce Department.

Responding to protests from mayors of both parties, who said that CDBG was their most flexible tool for spurring investment in blighted downtowns and neighborhoods, Congress rejected the Bush plan. But this year the president wants to cut CDBG funding by $1 billion, a reduction of more than 25 percent.

In a joint statement from 14 state, local and nonprofit groups, the cut was described as "devastating" and a "serious threat" to ongoing projects. The statement noted the irony that the administration has used CDBG as the best vehicle to deliver $11.5 billion of emergency funding to Gulf Coast communities devastated by last year's hurricanes, but nonetheless wants to take the program out of many other cities.

Rep. Michael Turner, the Ohio Republican who heads the House task force on urban affairs, conducted hearings last year on CDBG and has recommended improvements in the program. But he said he was concerned about the impact of Bush's proposed cuts on a program he called "essential to our nation's communities and neighborhoods."

"Reducing funding to these programs hurts people trying to recapture their neighborhoods and revitalize their communities," Turner said.

This is but one of many examples of the way important domestic programs are being jeopardized by the priorities of this government - and especially by Bush's adamant refusal to raise the revenues needed to support the ever-more-expensive war effort.

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


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