Joe Bob's America: Budget's a wild read

By JOE BOB BRIGGS   |   Feb. 10, 2003 at 10:41 AM

NEW YORK, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- The first line of Fearless Leader's budget, which was hoisted onto a mule team and carried over to Congress this week, should have been, "It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times."

Talk about a tortured brooding monster of a novel. In fact, the 2004 budget is longer than any novel I've ever read. "War and Peace" is only 1,350 pages. This beats Tolstoy all to hell, though the title in this case would be "War and War."

"We remain at war," it tells us in the second paragraph, "with an enemy that seeks to use murder, stealth, and fear against all free nations."

Well, OK, I guess there won't be much in here about the price of toner cartridges, will there? The word "terrorism" is used so many times that I tried an experiment. I looked for a chapter in the budget that was so far removed from war that it couldn't possibly have anything to do with terrorism -- just to see if terrorism would be mentioned.

For example, the Department of Agriculture chapter: Amber waves of grain, right? Brangus cattle-breeding programs, right? No. The very first priority in the Agricultural budget is to beef up the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Of course, in these post-9/11 times -- yes, the number one goal of the USDA is protecting our food supply against terrorism.

In fact, the Agriculture chapter is kind of Rod Serlingesque, with descriptions of underground caves in Kansas City where they store 1.2 billion pounds of nonfat dry milk in bags. If you laid the bags end to end, we're told, they would stretch 12,000 miles. I hope they're not thinking about doing that.

It's also the chapter with the giant picture -- yes, they have photos! -- of the Asian long-horned beetle. The Asian long-horned beetle is the Osama Bin Laden of Agriculture, threatening to burrow into our precious fauna and destroy it before we can locate all the sleeper cells and destroy them.

The first theme of the tome is war, war, war. The second theme is poor, poor, poor. We're under attack and we don't have any money.

But there's one thing I don't understand no matter how many times it's explained to me -- and they explain it SEVERAL times in the budget. First they say that we NEED to have a budget deficit. (Why do the Republicans always talk like John Maynard Keynes, and then the Democrats come along years later and cover all the hot checks?) So we NEED to have this deficit, of $307 billion. The government will spend $2.1 TRILLION in 2003, but that's not enough -- they're right up front about saying we'll need more in future years.

The second part of this equation is: Let's cut taxes! He's got another one of those get-a-$1,000- in-the-mail tax cuts in there, though -- listen to THESE monster figures -

1) We've already promised to pay $5 trillion to Social Security that we don't have and we won't have.

2) But that's nothing compared to Medicare. We've promised to pay $13 trillion to Medicare that we don't have.

So add those two together and it's five times the national debt that we owe but we don't have. Or, to put it another way, it's eight times the total amount of government spending last year, which is less than government spending this year, which is less than what he wants for next year.

But here's the clincher:

3) Let's start paying for everyone's prescription drugs, too.

Hell, it's only $18 trillion, what's another trillion or two gonna matter?

Don't we end up with Confederate money if we do that?

I'm only talking about the part of the budget they call "mandatory," meaning we have to pay out this money someday whether we like it or not because people have already signed on for it. To pay for it the honest way, we would have to increase everyone's taxes about $3,000 per person per year. Wait, I guess that would be $4,000 per year since we're giving money back in 2004.

We spend a full third of the budget on Social Security and Medicare, but the money only goes to 14 percent of the population. That's why, they solemnly say, we should solve the Social Security and Medicare financing problem sooner rather than later. And the way we do that is ... no solution offered! Is it a cliffhanger? Should we be getting ready for the sequel?

"Our budget gap is small by historical standards," is the deadpan explanation from the text.

Other things they're proud of:

The Pentagon budget is going up again -- surprise, surprise -- and it's already increased $84 billion since the Clinton administration. That's including the $9.1 billion for missile defense. What did I miss here? Who has missiles to launch at us?

The Department of Homeland Security needs $400 million for stockpiling vaccines, but more than twice as much -- $890 million -- for the medicine they give you AFTER you've been gassed or infected. Shouldn't we reverse that ratio?

And I finally figured out the thing about "faith-based" charities. Every time it's mentioned in the budget, the next thing mentioned is DRUGGIES. Addicts, scuzzy folks, the cast of "Trainspotting." There's a direct relation between giving money to religious organizations and rehab. In fact, $200 million of the "faith-based" stuff is strictly for drug programs, with only $20 million for the much-better publicized "responsible fatherhood and marriage" programs.

Our message to cokeheads: Get thee to a priest.

Other things you would never know if you didn't read the budget: In 2002, 10 percent of all "individually billed travel accounts" were delinquent. Ten percent? Ten percent of the people who made business trips for the government charged pay-per-view movies in the hotel room and refused to pay the money back? I can understand a few nickels and dimes here and there, but how do you lose 10 percent of your budget on travel overspending by PEOPLE YOU CAN FIRE?

The president wants to get rid of 10,000 government vehicles. None of them are SUVs. (Don't get too excited. There are 576,400 OTHER government vehicles.)

We have something called the "Train and Equip" program in the Republic of Georgia that involves teaching soldiers how to lie down in the grass and fire machine guns. (There are pictures to prove it.)

There are 15 charities that support terrorism.

The following agencies will find the terrorists if we give them enough money: CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, Office of Naval Intelligence, Coast Guard Intelligence. How much money? None of them is in the budget.

There's a picture of Afghan leader Hamid Karzai in the budget. Now THAT'S what I call popularity. There's not even a picture of Colin Powell in the budget.

There are 2.5 million federal credit cards, and at one agency $4 million was spent on unauthorized purchases from pawn shops, jewelry stores and antique shops. I understand the first two, but ... ANTIQUE SHOPS? What agency was it? The National Institute for Eccentric Grandmothers?

At the Internal Revenue Service, only 68 percent of taxpayer calls were answered in 2002. For the other 32 percent, they presumably just let the phone ring while they had a smoke.

There are lots of pie charts in the budget. But there's one pie chart that may be the world's funniest. It's called "Disability Processing Time," and it's supposed to express the relationship between the actual time it takes to handle a Social Security disability claim, and the time you have to WAIT for the Social Security Administration to start processing your claim.

I'm actually starting to have fun here, in spite of the unimaginative chapter arrangement -- alphabetical by Cabinet department. Hence in the tiny Department of Commerce (total budget only $5.8 billion, compared to $358 billion for Defense), we learn that it will soon take the government 45 months to process a patent (our goal is 27 months, but we don't think we'll meet it because of that pesky backlog of 420,000 cases). We also learn that those emergency loans to the steel industry were not such a good idea. The first company that got one -- for $110 million -- defaulted on it three months later. And that there were 70 tornados last year, one of which destroyed the movie theater in Van Wert, Ohio, (great photo of wrecked cars on top of the theater seats), but the good news is that accurate forecasting saved everyone's life.

The pace picks up with Defense. Stryker Brigades! F-22 fighter jets! Hellfire missiles! A picture of F-16s flying over Detroit! A picture of the new volleyball court in Qatar! (A little bit of a downer in the section about chemical weapons destruction. Despite international treaties, we're sort of, uh, not doing it.)

The Education chapter makes a big deal out of the new school report card system, so that parents can see how well their kid's school is doing and, if they don't like it, transfer him to another school. I didn't quite get the concept, because, if a school gets a D or an F, wouldn't EVERYBODY transfer to another school and then you would have no school?

The Energy Department chapter has a beautiful photo of scenic Yucca Mountain in Nevada at sunset -- a little jarring when you realize it's the new nuclear-waste depository. I always thought the Energy Department was a place where they tinkered around with electric cars and kept track of natural gas deposits, but ... not anymore!

We're talking "stockpile stewardship" -- taking care of the nukes we might need later, and making sure we have enough plutonium to make new ones.

The first priority at Health & Human Services is - guess what? -- "bioterrorism preparedness." Interesting sidebar: they noticed that 6 million people reported gambling income on their tax returns last year, so they want to go after that money for back child support. (Why gambling profits would suddenly turn on the "deadbeat dad" light bulb is not explained.)

The most amusing organizational charts are both in the Homeland Security chapter.

The first chart is designed to show how confusing it was when there were 22 separate agencies all reporting to different people. The second chart, with the new reorganized Homeland Security Department, shows the same 22 separate agencies with arrows pointing among them in a pattern that is ... just as confusing!

Homeland Security is all about spying. Most of the money is for secret cameras and databases and snooping around.

Housing & Urban Development has the best sense of humor of any of the departments, as evidenced by the chapter subheading "Remember the HUD you saw on 'The Sopranos'? Fact or Fiction?" And then you read on to find out the answer is ... FACT.

There really was a HUD housing scam very much like the one depicted on the hit series. But they have victories as well. It's now the end of the 10-year Revitalization of Severely Distressed Public Housing program, and they won't be renewing it. Perhaps the statistics give an indication why. They demolished 115,000 units and only built 60,000 new ones. I don't think the word there is "revitalization." They just ran out of stuff to tear down.

The Interior chapter has a big problem: the words Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. All four words indicate something you probably shouldn't mess with. Of course, they intend to mess with it.

Weirdest photo choice goes to the Department of Justice: crop dusters. They're trying to make a point about those failed terrorists who THOUGHT ABOUT using crop dusters to spread nerve agents. When you break Justice down in money terms, it's all about prisons. They spend 29 percent of their budget on prisons and, by the way, they need seven more.

Even the best books start to drag in the middle, so I'll skip over Labor (can't get as excited about job training programs as they do) and just hit the highlights on State:

Big money coming next year for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Please identify these on a map to verify they're real countries before drafting the checks.

Colombia gets the hugest new package: $463 million. You're thinking it's for fighting drugs, right? That's such 1990s thinking. It's for "narco-terrorism."

And there's $30 million for the new Middle East TV network. Powell is going into competition with Al Jazeera. This could get nasty, especially if they start piping "The Bachelorette" into Iran.

Transportation is all about highways and more highways, but there's an interesting little digression into something called the Essential Air Service program, which provides subsidies to 114 small airports that otherwise wouldn't have air service. (Kinda weird that they would do this but refuse to do the same thing for Amtrak.) To show you how well the tiny-airport program is doing, last year 3.7 people per day boarded planes at the airport in Utica, N.Y., (no, that's not a typo), at a cost to the government of $455 per passenger. They also explain why the Springfield Interchange, also called the "Mixing Bowl," in suburban Washington has become the most out-of-control highway building project in history. (Original budget $241 million. Estimated completion budget $677 million.) The explanation: "lax project oversight." Thank you for being so specific.

I have to admit that my eyes started to glaze over as I raced through Veterans Affairs (4.8 million patients), the Corps of Engineers (all the locks and dams are mired in cost overruns), and the Environmental Protection Agency (according to this, the air and water are perfectly pure 24/7), in order to get to NASA.

Hardly anything about the space shuttle! Scarcely even mentioned. But a long passage on space aliens -- research over the last 10 years, these guys say, indicate there may be Something Out There, with signs of organic life on Mars, Jupiter and 90 stars.

Memo to future budget writers: you need a big closer. This one just kind of peters out, running quickly through fascinating institutions such as the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and teeny-tiny appendages like the National Endowment for the Arts ($117 million) and the National Archives and Records Administration. It concludes with that old Depression-era standby, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was boring even to socialists in the 1930s.

Don't we need something apocalyptic at the end of this morose budget? Oh, right, I forgot -- it's understood. There's nothing about the money we might need for the war in Iraq. They'll add that in the cheap paperback version this summer.


(Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at joebob@upi.com or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.)

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