State of the Union: Reasserting Government Power
Jim Cason, FCNL
President George W. Bush’s last State of the Union address was remarkable for the relaxed tone, the absence of the usual use of props, or angry rhetoric. I’ve watched all of the last 15 State of the Union messages on television or sitting in the House chamber press gallery and almost all have made me sad, angry, and searching for hints of the world that is possible.
In this context, I’m glad to be able to celebrate the president’s appeal to Congress to “find a sensible and humane way to deal with people here illegally.” I hope others in both parties can adopt at least that part of his appeal. As someone who has worked in Africa, and on Africa policy issues since the 1970s, I’m also frankly amazed that a president of the U.S. persuaded Congress to spend $15 billion on HIV/AIDs in Africa (even with all the caveats and problems with the program) and is now calling for another $15 billion in expenditures.
Equally impressive for me was the president’s appeal for support for an initiative to purchase food aid directly from farmers in the developing world to “build up local agriculture and help break the cycle of famine." This is common sense for many development experts, but I don't remember a previous president ever making such an appeal.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, the underlying message of the speech was consistent with the president’s seven year campaign to curtail the power of Congress and the courts, seize more power for the Executive, expand the military budget, and undermine the Constitution. The “headline” from the speech was the announcement that the president will issue an executive order Tuesday directing government agencies to ignore the directions of Congress on how to spend money unless they are explicitly voted into legislation. The president also promised to veto any legislation that did not cut said “earmarks” in half. I’m sure someone at FCNL will write more about earmarks in the future, but isn’t the job of Congress to direct how your tax dollars are spent?
The president followed this declaration up with a reassertion of his right to spy on citizens of the United States without full review of that surveillance by a court of law. We at FCNL hope Congress refuses to rubber stamp the president's warrantless spying program and grant blanket immunity to phone companies that broke the law. If you’ve forgotten the Fourth Amendment, FCNL has posted a copy.
This last state of the union was also about the president’s legacy and the longterm effort of this administration to shrink the size of all parts of the federal government except the machinery of war. Other colleagues will no doubt write about the president’s continuing blind insistence that the war on Iraq is working. The real struggle in this last year of the Bush administration will be focused on making the tax cuts – or as my colleague Ruth Flower calls them the tax expenditures – permanent. She demonstrated last year the effects of these policies on increasing inequality. The Center of Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that making the president’s tax cut permanent will cost the federal government $4.3 trillion over the next ten years.
Of course we could just pay for that tax cut by eliminating the Pentagon (which is spending $500 billion a year) and still have money left over. But I doubt politicians from either political party would go along with that proposal. And if members of Congress from both parties cave into a proposal like this, the resources available to build the world we seek – from cutting child poverty and feeding the hungry to funding peaceful prevention of deadly conflict and supporting international institutions that can guarantee our collective security – will not be there.