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Promises, Promises

September 20, 2003

George W. Bush is hardly the first president to say one thing and do something else. Like his predecessors, Bush strode into the Oval Office clutching a sheaf of spending proposals to tackle the nation's ills. But even before the budget surplus morphed into a gargantuan deficit, a distressingly large gap opened between Bush's photo-op pledges and his dollars-and-cents proposals. Now that gap looks more like an abyss.

Middle-class voters who gnash their teeth over indifferent teachers and decrepit schoolhouses loudly cheered Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. Signed in January 2002, the measure requires states to test students' reading and math skills yearly and fix dysfunctional schools. Yet although federal education spending is up, it is falling way short of what states need to comply with the law. Meanwhile, Bush wants to siphon off $75 million for vouchers that parents could use for private schools.

As a candidate, Bush promised to spruce up decaying national park facilities, and he has said he earmarked $2.9 billion from 2002 through 2004, a 132% increase for the huge repair backlog. But a National Park Service official testified in July that only $200 million to $300 million of this was new money.

Standing by the rubble of the World Trade Center two years ago, Bush promised to make domestic security his first priority. Last year Congress appropriated millions for airport screening, FBI counter-terrorism technology and measures to safeguard food and water supplies. But Bush froze the bulk of these funds, urging "fiscal restraint." He sought no increase in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention despite anthrax attacks and bioterrorism threats. The CDC finished its urgently needed emergency operations center only after Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus kicked in the final $4 million. The building now bears his name. Some penny-pinching is in order as the deficit grows, but first Bush should stretch out his tax cuts and drop his efforts to make them permanent.

The latest promise to tumble into the credibility canyon involves AIDS prevention and treatment. At home and on his Africa tour in July, Bush justly trumpeted his January pledge of $15 billion over the next five years. Now the administration is holding back and privately urging congressional allies to cut the president's program.

This shell game began before the towers fell in New York, before the economy slid into red ink. As it continues, Bush risks not just his personal credibility but the nation's security, economic future and natural resources.

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