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Belt-tightening won't work if we leave it to 'the other guy'

WASHINGTON — For about 30 seconds, it looked like fiscal discipline was making a comeback on Capitol Hill.

Conservative House Republicans last week produced a list of billions in federal spending cuts to offset skyrocketing costs of hurricane relief and recovery. A 23-page report outlined dozens of cuts under such rah-rah titles as "Tough Choices in Tough Times."

But if the House Republican Study Committee's "Budget Options" were a diet, it would be called Belt-Tightening for Other People.

It's easy to cut programs you don't like that affect somebody else. The reality is that many of the committee's cuts targeted programs conservatives have tried — and failed — to kill for years. The programs live on, thanks to strong constituencies among Democrats and Republicans.

The choices are so tough that not all the committee's 110 Republican members could agree on them. The proposals ranged from slashing billions from Medicare, foreign aid and poverty programs to stopping future space exploration. They suggested deep-sixing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and taking an ax to that most sacred of spending — highway projects.

The cuts were too partisan, too much and too early.

The problem is just now sinking in that we are facing a $200 billion tab for Hurricane Katrina. The meter is still running on Rita and other storms not yet on the horizon.

The first pass at paying these costs without raising taxes or ballooning the deficit was a "nonstarter." That was the word House Majority Leader Tom DeLay used about one of the major proposals — delaying, perhaps indefinitely, the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. President Bush put the kibosh on that one, too.

Other House and Senate leaders were similarly disinclined to ponder major cuts. Take care of the people first, then worry about the bills, lawmakers agreed.

Belt-tightening — or talk about it — was in vogue at the study committee's news conference. But it's disingenuous to suggest that slashing foreign aid is a diet the United States can live with.

Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas wants to revive his pet failed measure — and lop support from any nation at the United Nations that votes against U.S. interests more than half the time.

"We don't have to pay you to hate us," Gohmert declared. Indeed, not. Countries hate us for free.

Other congressmen touted "cuts" that actually would add spending to their own districts. Rep. Scott Garrett of New Jersey said he could save $10 billion over a 10-year period by targeting money for first-responders under Homeland Security to places of the highest risk — like, you guessed it, New Jersey.

The idea of giving back "earmarked" projects from the bloated $286.4 billion transportation bill passed last summer drew some Democratic support.

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi announced she was willing to return $70 million earmarked for her hometown of San Francisco.

Nothing doing, responded DeLay, whose Texas district reportedly stands to get many times that much in special highway projects. "My earmarks are pretty important," he said.

If Congress really wants to cut federal consumption, Republicans will have to do more than hide Democrats' forks, and Democrats will have to stop acting like vegetarians at a steak dinner. Remember: It's easy to give up something you don't like anyway, like corporate tax loopholes.

Maybe someone ought to ask the people what they want. Former President Clinton insists that rich people like himself would willingly give back the Bush tax cuts. Is he right?

Ordinary people have opened their wallets to the American Red Cross as never before. There are signs Americans would accept sacrifice.

The residents of Bozeman, Mont., want Congress to take back $4 million for a parking garage from the highway bill and send the money to hurricane rebuilding.

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., said he's sure that the people in eastern Indiana would rather spend money rebuilding the Gulf Coast than improving roads in Muncie, Anderson and Richmond, Ind.

My guess is they would if Tom DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert give up some road projects in their districts, too. The local project always is important bacon while the faraway one is pork.

If Republicans and Democrats are serious about paying for Katrina and Rita — and that's still in doubt — they're going to have to start pushing back from the table.

Nobody ever lost weight telling someone else to skip dessert.

Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief for Media General News Service. E-mail: