Despite administration claims, Clinton's budget proposal is far from bold


WASHINGTON -- From the moment President Clinton offered his budget proposal, the White House has repeatedly characterized it as a bold and courageous departure from business-as-usual.

Cabinet officers, administration spokesmen, the vice president -- even Mr. Clinton himself -- unabashedly describe this budget as some kind of revolutionary document. Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt actually used that word, "revolutionary."

In a subsequent radio address, Mr. Clinton said that his plan "makes dramatic reductions in deficit spending, over 150 specific cuts in domestic programs, and asks a contribution from every American based on his or her ability to pay -- all to get the deficit down."

But what neither Mr. Clinton nor his subordinates ever mention is this:

Even with the increased cuts being urged by Congress, even if the president's budget assumptions prove correct, even if the economy performs well, at the end of his four-year term, Mr. Clinton and the Congress will have added somewhere between $880 billion and $1 trillion to the national debt.

"That's the most disappointing thing about his plan," said economist Stephen Moore, a senior fellow with the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. "If we're going to have a record tax increase, shouldn't we get more from it than just a 30 [percent] or 40 percent reduction in what the deficit might have been?"

The annual deficit is the difference between what the government takes in each year and what it spends. The national debt represents the accumulation of annual deficits, and the problem with it is that the government must pay interest on all the money it has borrowed. By the end of the decade, the annual interest on the debt will surpass Pentagon spending.

Many traditional economists argue that the budget is so out of whack that balancing it all at once could plunge the nation into an economic depression. But after the president's State of the Union speech in which he urged Americans to accept "shared sacrifice," members of Congress kept hearing from their constituents that this budget simply did not cut enough spending.

All last week, Capitol Hill pushed the White House for further deficit-reducing measures. Big numbers were bandied about: $55 billion. Then $68 billion. Finally, some $96 billion in new cuts were to be added to Mr. Clinton's package.

But these numbers were not as significant as they sounded. For one thing, they are based on five-year projections, with the biggest savings coming in the fifth year, when Mr. Clinton may not even be in office.

And since neither the congressional budget committees nor the White House was saying exactly where those cuts were coming from, it is probably most prudent to look at the next fiscal year. In that year, the president proposed trimming less than $45 billion from a deficit projected at more than $300 billion.

"Even with these cuts the White House has negotiated with Congress, in four years, the national debt will be above $5 trillion -- more than $20,000 for every man, woman and child in the country," said Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

"It's the jargon that gets everybody excited," Mr. Schatz added. "People think, 'Oh, they're going to cut government spending.' But, of course, they are not really talking cutting government spending, only about reducing the rate of growth. That's not enough."

In fact, federal spending will increase, even under the Clinton plan, to the tune of $50 billion, according to figures provided by the Congressional Budget Office.

So why doesn't the president go after the really big items, beyond everyone's favorite targets such as the space station or the super-colliding superconductor, the most advanced atom smasher in the world.

Why doesn't the president seek even deeper military cuts? Why does he propose, at this time, to make Head Start virtually an entitlement program? Why doesn't he seek the kind of gasoline taxes or other middle-class taxes that Ross Perot recommends and would really bite a hole in the budget deficit?

Why doesn't he propose even modest caps on the annual Social Security cost-of-living increases that are breaking the bank?

"Because he's political, that's why," said Lyn Nofziger, who was White House political director back when Ronald Reagan was rolling his plan through Congress the way Mr. Clinton is now. "To deal with this foul mess is going to hurt like hell -- and Clinton wants to run again in four years."

Candidates who have run afoul of the public's anti-tax sentiments have paid dearly for it.

Walter F. Mondale, the Democrats' 1984 nominee, promised to raise taxes to deal with the deficit if he were elected. He wasn't.

George Bush pledged to never raise taxes, did so anyway, and was retired by the voters in the next election.

Mr. Clinton promised in his 1992 campaign to give the middle-class a tax cut. He discovered once he took office that this was unrealistic, but it helps explain his reticence to tackle the deficit more aggressively.

That's the revenue side of the equation. What's less easy to understand is why the proposed limits on government spending being proposed aren't more severe.

Every year, consumer groups, anti-tax groups and various think tanks and private commissions reveal ways to attack the nation's runaway federal debt. Working from these reports, the White House proposed a lot of cuts for the coming fiscal year.

But a close examination of those proposals reveals a gap between Mr. Clinton's budget and Mr. Clinton's rhetoric.

Take the crop subsidy programs, for example. Almost every would-be reformer has suggested seriously curtailing this program or phasing it out. This year it will cost the taxpayers $17 billion. Billions more will go to pay for the Farmers Home Administration, which makes farm loans to those with shaky credit.

The Clinton administration plan went after these subsidies not -- boldly, but timidly.

More than 98 percent of the money paid for crop supports would be untouched. One of the cuts Mr. Clinton boasted about -- going after the mohair and wool subsidy -- is a vivid example.

This program was enacted during World War II to ensure there would be enough wool for Army uniforms. Mr. Clinton, heeding the advice of anti-waste groups, targets it. Yet all the Clinton plan would do is cap the subsidy to wool and mohair farmers at $50,000 a year, thus trimming only $12 million out of a $191 million program.

"What is wrong with these people?" asks Lionel Kunst, a Kansas City-based grass-roots activist who heads a group trying to reform Congress. "President Clinton had people eating out of his TC hands after his State of the Union speech. But the people are willing to go further than he is. It doesn't make sense."

Maybe not for the long-term economic health of the nation. But even conservative critics of Mr. Clinton believe that his budget package reflects political reality.

"When we put our budget proposals together, we wimp out on Social Security [cost-of-living] caps, too," said Mr. Moore, referring to a proposal he help put together for the Cato Institute, a think tank opposed to government growth. "I mean, it's a nonstarter politically. You wouldn't get 10 votes in the Senate for it."

Mr. Moore added, "I think Clinton and [political adviser James] Carville are right when they said during the campaign, 'It's the economy, stupid.' Sure, people will answer a pollster's question that they care about the deficit, but if the deficit were under control, and unemployment was up and the economy was stagnant, [the president] would lose."

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