Bush on the bureaucracy: Mixed signals

President Bush praised federal employees and unveiled plans for several major domestic initiatives during his State of the Union address Tuesday, but also said he wants to cut the federal budget deficit in half by restricting discretionary spending and limiting the size and scope of government.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said Bush's speech sent mixed signals.

In addition to praising the efforts of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush singled out federal law enforcement officers and employees of the Homeland Security Department for praise in his speech. His proposals for expanding federal programs included a $300 million job training and placement program to help newly released prisoners, a $23 million initiative for public schools to do student drug testing, and a doubling of federal funding for abstinence programs.

At the same time, Bush pushed for stricter limits on overall discretionary spending. "In two weeks," he told members of Congress, "I will send you a budget that funds the war, protects the homeland, and meets important domestic needs, while limiting the growth in discretionary spending to less than 4 percent. This will require that Congress focus on priorities, cut wasteful spending, and be wise with the people's money. By doing so, we can cut the deficit in half over the next five years."

Defending his proposal to make recent tax cuts permanent, the president said "the American people are using their money far better than government would have," adding that "we should limit the burden of government on this economy by acting as good stewards of taxpayer dollars."

Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., said Bush's speech was full of contradictions.

"He talked about how great federal employees are in homeland defense and other issues, but then he won't give them a decent pay raise," Wynn said. "We've been fighting all year long to get a mere 4.1 percent pay raise for federal employees. On the fundamental issue of compensation, the president is terribly inconsistent. He's also inconsistent when he says he wants federal employees doing jobs but he's quick to find ways to outsource."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, said Bush failed to explain how his administration would cut the deficit in half. McCain said he was particularly disappointed that Bush did not pledge to stop pork-barrel spending, adding that he also believed Bush sent mixed signals.

"The message tonight should have been spending is out of control, the deficit is out of control, and we've got to make some choices," McCain said. "What disappoints me is this failure to take the issue of the deficit head on. By whom, when and how will the deficit be cut in half?"

Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said the administration had shortchanged local homeland security efforts.

"We are not more secure today domestically because our first-line responders … do not have the resources for preparation, do not have the resources for the equipment they need, and do not have the resources for response," he said. "We created a federal bureaucracy in Washington, but we left the rest of the country and the first responders unfunded."

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