President Bush softened his criticism of Congress and its spending habits Saturday, and said he is waging his own campaign to make government more efficient by instituting management reforms.
Barely 24 hours after admonishing Congress to curb its appetite for increased spending, Bush praised lawmakers for helping him get his tax cut package approved last year and expressed hope that this year's budget disputes can be resolved amicably.
"I don't think we have to fight," he said.
The president made his remarks as he hiked up and down rugged canyons on his 1,600-acre ranch near here. At one point, he took a chain saw to cut up dead trees in a creek bed and quipped: "It's a wonderful spot to come up here and think about the budget."
Earlier, in his Saturday radio address, Bush said he has launched a concerted effort to attack "long-neglected management problems" in the federal government. He also defended his $1.35-trillion, 10-year tax cut as "the right policy at exactly the right time to boost our sagging economy."
But Democrats continued their attacks on the president's budget priorities.
South Carolina Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Saturday that the tax cut was largely to blame for eating up this year's anticipated budget surplus and putting Social Security and Medicare trust funds at risk.
"We warned that if these projections of the surplus didn't pan out, the budget would be back in the red again, and that is exactly what has happened," Spratt said in the Democrats' weekly radio address.
"The Bush administration needs to heed the lessons of these last eight months and acknowledge that the surplus is gone, due largely to its own policies."
According to White House figures released last week, the estimated size of this year's budget surplus outside of Social Security has shriveled from $122 billion in April to $1 billion today.
The tax rebates still in the process of being mailed to millions of Americans caused about $40 billion of the shrinkage, but a slowing economy is to blame for $46 billion of the loss, the White House said.
The Congressional Budget Office will release its own budget revisions Tuesday. The CBO numbers are expected to show that this year's non-Social Security surplus has turned into a small deficit.
In his radio address, however, Bush insisted that the budget remains "strong, healthy and in balance."
"The greatest threat to our budget outlook is the danger that Congress will be tempted this fall to break its earlier commitments by spending too much," the president said.
"The old way in Washington is to believe that the more you spend, the more you care. . . . My administration takes a new approach. We want to spend your hard-earned money as carefully as you do."
Later, while talking to reporters, Bush acknowledged that Congress has been cooperative on a number of his legislative priorities, especially the tax cut. "And I appreciate that very much," he said.
Faced with a rapidly dwindling surplus, Bush said Congress must restrain its appetite and stick closely to the previously agreed upon spending levels "so we avoid a fight."
"We'll see whether or not there's the commitment to make national defense a priority," he added. "Members of both parties are, you know, saying, 'Well, we need to spend more on this, that and the other.' "
"I will fight for an education and a national defense funding that I think is at the appropriate level. But I don't think we have to fight. 'Fighting' isn't the right word yet."
Outlining his effort to improve the management practices of the federal government, Bush said he has directed each of his Cabinet secretaries to appoint a chief operating officer to pursue reforms within their agencies and to serve on a president's management council.
As an example of government inefficiency, Bush said Washington will spend $45 billion in 2002 on information technology, more than is budgeted for roads. "Unlike private-sector companies, this large investment has not cut the government's cost or improved people's lives in any way we can measure," he said.
A 71-page report by the White House Office of Management and Budget identifies 14 management problems within the federal government, along with proposed solutions--some of which it said already are being carried out.
The Pentagon, for example, is entering into "public-private partnerships" to provide better living quarters for an estimated 177,000 military families. The report cites a project at Camp Pendleton, where the Marine Corps is providing land and a loan to a private developer to build 288 off-base housing units at about one-third the cost of a conventional government construction program.
The administration is studying the possibility of using Internal Revenue Service records to verify the incomes cited by applicants for federal student aid loans, a program long identified as susceptible to abuse. Similarly, the administration says it will crack down on waste and fraud in programs that provide poor people overseas with food aid, some of which winds up being confiscated, sold, misplaced or discarded.
Other reform proposals are directed at problems in government personnel management, computer technology, financial oversight, research and development, housing programs and overseas missions.