Reality Bites


Washington. -- Here you only get in trouble for telling the truth.

I have on my desk the infamous Clinton budget memorandum citing the Social Security, Medicare and other government cuts that would meet Bill Clinton's promises. Prepared by budget director Alice Rivlin, and leaked to the press, it's an extraordinary public document.

What it does is take voters to where no politician had ever led them before: to the truth. The president talks often of "deficit reduction," of "reforming welfare as we know it," of middle-class tax relief, of "investments" in people through Head Start and an expanded national-service program. The Rivlin memo shows the math behind the Clinton mantra.

The details are gory, a bit like being told years in advance both the wording -- and timing -- of your obituary.

The federal deficit will automatically hit $168 billion next year, the Rivlin memo warns. But given the equally automatic growth in government spending, it will take $200 billion in government spending cuts over the next five years just to keep it there.

That's if Mr. Clinton is satisfied to do nothing. To keep his reputation as deficit-cutter -- he's cut two budgets already -- will take nearly $300 billion in program cuts the next five years.

Deeper cuts will be needed if the president hopes to deliver those tax cuts and program initiatives he's been talking about next year. If he's going to give the middle class a modest tax cut and reform the welfare system, Ms. Rivlin estimates, he will need to cut $400 billion from other government spending.

Question: Where can the government save that kind of money?

Answer: Social Security benefits.

Retirees get a cost-of-living adjustment to offset inflation. Deducting 2 percent from this COLA each year would save the government $100 billion over five years, Ms. Rivlin notes. That would be a healthy chunk of the needed $400 billion savings to keep the Clinton budget plan on line.

Ms. Rivlin suggests other ways to chop away at Social Security benefits. One option would be to deny Social Security entirely to those in the top 5 percent of income earners. That would save about $50 billion.

Another Rivlin option would be an "affluence test" applied to those getting Social Security or other benefits. One option would begin shrinking government checks to all making $60,000 a year. This would save $100 billion.

Starting the shrinkage at $40,000 would save $250 billion, taking a real bite out of the necessary $400 billion in government spending cuts.

But don't worry. The Republicans and Newt "Contract with America" Gingrich don't want to talk budget reality any more than President Clinton does. In Washington, you only get in trouble for telling the truth.

Christopher Matthews is a syndicated columnist.

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