Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Allen blasts Bush budget plan

Published in the Current and the American Journal

U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, sharply criticized the budget proposed by President George W. Bush last week, saying Bush’s spending plan “looks like a budget to reduce economic growth.”

Allen plans to run for reelection to the House in 2006 and is mulling challenging Republican incumbent Olympia Snowe for her Senate seat.

In an interview with an editor at Current Publishing, Allen said the president’s budget, as well as the spending resolutions adopted by the House and Senate – are “all disastrous for Maine” and the rest of the country, and could result in inflation.

Allen, a member of the House Budget Committee, blamed the problems on Bush’s desires to spend huge amounts of money on defense and homeland security, cut taxes on upper-class Americans, and reduce domestic spending.

“It’s so hard for the public to understand that their opportunities in life get affected by how the federal government spends their money,” Allen said.

One aspect that particularly hurts Maine is a proposal to “eliminate … the federal funding that supports agricultural research at land grant colleges,” to research forestry, blueberries and potatoes, among other topics. “No orchardist, no blueberry grower, no landowner can do that (research) on his own,” Allen said.

Spending vs. taxes
While Bush’s budget increases spending overall, it reduces spending on the Small Business Administration, environmental protection, adult education, job training, agricultural research and public housing, Allen said.

“Why? Why is because the president can’t reduce the upper-income tax cuts,” Allen said, characterizing those tax cuts as inefficient. “They gave us too little economic stimulation” and too many long-term problems, including “horrendous budget deficits” topping $400 billion.

“We have to have a stronger sense of fiscal responsibility,” Allen said.

He wants federal revenue to more closely match federal spending. Federal spending is now at about 20 percent of gross domestic product, roughly where it has always been, Allen said. But revenue is at 16.3 or 16.4 percent of GDP, the lowest since 1959 – before Medicare and Medicaid began, he said.

He is also angry about being misled about the cost of the war in Iraq.

“We’re spending over $1 billion a week in Iraq,” Allen said. “Speaking in terms of Bath Iron Works, that’s a destroyer every 10 days.”

But that’s not what former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress before the war.

Allen remembers being told that Iraq could pay for its own reconstruction. “The administration went in thinking it would cost very little money,” he said.

He proposed paying for increased domestic spending by getting rid of tax cuts for upper- and middle-income Americans.

“We ought to be investing in those things in particular that either enhance fairness in American society or contribute to economic growth,” he said.

Allen also voices support for federal funding of the Eastern Trail, an effort to create an off-road route from Kittery to South Portland and beyond. He has supported it in the past with earmarks of transportation money, and expects to continue to.

“To understand the value of trails, all you have to do is look at urban and rural trails where they exist,” he said. “They are heavily, heavily used.”

Allen expressed concern that the budget might not get a proper hearing in the chambers of Congress, as members debate the president’s biggest item, the privatization of Social Security.

“The debate over Social Security over private accounts sucks out a lot of the air” Congress would use to discuss other matters, Allen said.

Education and energy
Two topics that need additional scrutiny are the federal education and energy policies, he said.

“No Child Left Behind has become another unfunded mandate,” that has never been given the money it needs to succeed, Allen said.

“There’s not enough money to pay for all the testing and the training that’s required,” he said. “Most educators in Maine would say that we’re spending so much time teaching to the test that we’ve lost the spontaneity” that is crucial to education.

He also wants to revamp the government’s approach to energy, particularly the use of fossil fuels.

“We’ve wasted over four years when we could have been doing an energy policy that could have reduced demand,” he said, blaming the Bush administration for stalling on energy-conservation measures while demanding support for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska.

“They wanted to drill but not to save,” Allen said. But in a country that uses 25 percent of the world’s oil and has 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves, “ANWR doesn’t matter,” he said.

“We need to be investing in alternatives,” including cellulosic ethanol, which can be added to gasoline to conserve petroleum-based fuel

Health care
Allen wants to “make our health care system more efficient,” to reduce the cost burden businesses bear, and help cover an estimated 45 million Americans who do not have health insurance.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., floated one idea Allen likes during the 2004 presidential campaign. That idea would have the federal government pick up the cost of all health care cases that cost over $50,000, effectively creating a nationwide high-risk insurance pool.

But Allen doesn’t think that will be approved without some means of containing the costs of health care, which could be a long way off.

He deferred questions on what specific drugs or procedures should or should not be included in government-funded programs, but said medical decisions will become increasingly political because of the expense.

“They’ll have to be because the cost of health care is so high,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to escape this.”

The latest Medicare reform bill requires insurance companies to cover one drug in each class, Allen said, but does not specify which drug, leaving private insurers to decide on their own.

“These are the kinds of things that probably require some kind of public process,” to allow the people at large to prioritize health care spending, Allen said.

He also blasted federal involvement in the Terri Schiavo case, saying it was “a clear case” of a decision that should have stayed within the family. If the family disagreed, he said the courts should handle it.

“Congress had no business, in my view, injecting itself into a family matter,” he said, calling the law bringing the Schiavo case into federal court a political maneuver that ignored “the common sense attitude of a majority” of Americans.

“The silver lining to the Terri Schiavo case is more Americans will do living wills,” Allen said.