Clinton's budget shows he's playing it safe


WASHINGTON -- The budgets that presidents send up to Capitol Hill about this time every year make fascinating reading for congressmen, bureaucrats and lobbyists trying to get a reading on the priorities of the White House. If you are running, let's say, the Speckled Trout Pond Inspection Bureau in the Agriculture Department and there's no money for it in the budget, it is time to seek help from speckled trout-state senators and congressmen, look for a new job or both.

But budgets shouldn't be taken too literally. Although they are inevitably described as "spending plans" for the next fiscal year, they bear only the vaguest resemblance to what is finally spent by the federal government. Those decisions are made by Congress during the appropriations process.

On the other hand, a budget like the one President Clinton has just sent to Congress does provide some insight into his thinking. Thus, for example, there is an obvious message in the fact that he wants to move some spending away from space and nuclear energy programs and toward more job training and high-technology transportation. The message, of course, is that it's still the economy, stupid.

The Clinton budget is a classic case of playing safe. There are no dramatic new initiatives to enthrall the imaginative, but neither are there politically foolish flights of fancy that would be doomed to failure and -- more to the point -- invite heavy criticism from an electorate reluctant to spend more money.

The only general tax increase is that 75 cents a package on cigarettes, but smokers and their friends in the tobacco industry are not conspicuously influential in Congress these days. Like all budgets, this one is based on some assumptions about the condition of the economy -- and their effect on revenues and spending -- that may or may not be accurate. But the White House has been more restrained than is usually the case in making projections. The gross domestic product is estimated at 3.1 percent for the rest of this year and 2.8 percent for 1995, figures that generally square with those of private economists. The inflation rate is projected at 2.8 percent through 1994, 3.2 percent in 1995 -- again, reasonable and defensible figures.

Using these estimates the president projects a deficit in the 1995 fiscal year of only $176 billion, a decline of 40 percent. And he allows himself to claim that this progress can be traced to those hard budget decisions made last summer. That may or may not be exactly accurate, but who's to argue when the deficit is moving in the right direction?

The president also can claim that he wants to reduce federal spending on some 300 programs, killing 115 of them outright. In many cases those plans are clearly wishful thinking. Indeed, some of the programs tagged for oblivion have been the targets of every administration of either party for the last two generations without ever being brought down. But in terms of making a case for seriousness of purpose, these are proposals that Clinton can use to good effect in making his case that, as he TC put it, this is "the toughest budget on spending cuts that Congress has yet seen."

None of this suggests that Clinton is insulated from criticism on the budget. Republicans quickly began complaining that he wasn't making enough of a reduction in the deficit because too much of the savings being made by the left hand were being spent by the right. Liberal Democrats were muttering about such things as reductions in the federal subsidies for home heating oil for low-income families.

These are the kinds of issues that will be fought out in the appropriations process, which is a kind of bazaar in which interest groups make trades every year. There also is likely to be another general attempt, as there was at the end of the last session, to cut overall spending levels even further.

The significant thing, however, is that the Clinton budget is ho-hum enough so that it is not likely to become, in itself, the center of some great new brouhaha. With controversies already certainly ahead over health-care reform and welfare reform, the president doesn't need to open a new front.

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