A Fighting Strategy for Veterans

New York Times

A Fighting Strategy for Veterans

Military veterans are crying foul over President Bush’s budget proposals to cut spending on their health care. The budget must not be balanced “on the backs of veterans,” wrote Stephen P. Condon, the chairman of the Air Force Association, in a recent letter to The Times, a point that was echoed by other veterans at Congressional hearings last month. We agree with the veterans – but for somewhat different reasons than they have put forth.

The veterans’ goal is to block the president’s attempt to impose new hospital fees, higher prescription co-payments and other spending constraints – all of which would add up to an estimated 16 percent reduction in veterans’ benefits in 2010. (The estimate is from the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities because the administration, breaking with 16 years of budget tradition, did not provide five-year projections for specific programs.) But if veterans succeed in preserving only their own benefits, they will have been outfoxed by the administration.

Mr. Bush knows that wartime is no time to go after veterans’ benefits. But by proposing changes that are politically implausible while challenging Congress to cut spending, the administration gains a bargaining chip: if lawmakers aren’t willing to make the veterans’ cuts the president has proposed, they will be pressured to make even deeper cuts in programs for people who don’t have the veterans’ ability to fight back.

In effect, Mr. Bush’s budget pits veterans against the 660,000 women, infants and children whose food assistance is on the chopping block; against the 120,000 preschoolers who would be cut from Head Start; against the 370,000 families and disabled and elderly individuals who would lose rental assistance; against the whole communities that would lose support for clean air and drinking water; and so on.

The only way for veterans to avoid those unacceptable trade-offs is to refuse to fight on the president’s terms. The size and scope of Mr. Bush’s proposed spending cuts are a direct result of his refusal to ask for tax-cut rollbacks – that is, to ask wealthy investors, who have had lavish, deficit-bloating tax cuts over the past four years, to contribute toward deficit reduction. On the contrary, Mr. Bush’s budget proposes even more tax breaks, specifically for people with six-figure incomes or more and overflowing investment portfolios.

Most galling, the new tax cuts would be, in themselves, so large that the net spending cuts Mr. Bush has requested would not be enough to pay for them, let alone reduce the existing deficit.

Veterans have the moral and institutional clout to argue that no one group should be singled out to make sacrifices until all groups are asked to sacrifice. Bolstering that case is the fact that all successful deficit-cutting budgets have included tax increases on the affluent, including President Reagan’s 1983 budget, the first President George Bush’s 1991 budget and President Bill Clinton’s 1994 budget. Mr. Bush’s 2006 budget must do the same. If veterans drive that point home, the benefits they’ll save will be their own, and those of many women and children, too.

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