Devil is in the details in battle of balanced budget

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- We are now at the point at which the White House and Republicans in Congress are negotiating the particulars of the budget that ostensibly will bring federal spending into balance over the next five years. The favored cliche of the moment is that "the devil is in the details."

In fact, what is really going on is the crudest kind of political maneuvering on both sides, as both President Clinton and the Republican leaders try to preserve some favored items that don't necessarily make any sense right now. The outcome is likely to be a spending program that reaches its goal on paper without ever reflecting a true commitment to balancing the budget.

The balancing act is evident in both parties. The White House is insisting on the tax cut for higher education costs that inevitably will be of the greatest benefit to the middle and high income taxpayers but offering as an offset some increased spending on food stamps and other social programs as a way of throwing a bone to party liberals.

The Republicans similarly are hoping to mute criticism from their supply-side conservatives by including a reduction in the capital gains tax. And they are playing to religious conservatives by yielding to demands for a per-child tax credit that theoretically would enhance "family values."

The result will be a centrist, compromise spending plan that seems to reflect the first imperative of both parties -- appealing to the great middle class even at the expense of ignoring basic problems in the way the government is funded.

On the face of it, the most obvious weakness in their approach is that it is based on assumptions that may be invalid. The economy is booming right now and federal revenues are running far ahead of forecasts made a year or two ago. Indeed, the whole deal struck by Mr. Clinton and the Republicans May 2 rests on the fortuitous finding by the Congressional Budget Office that revenues would run $225 billion above earlier projections.

And even with that rosiest of rosy scenarios, the budget writers have put together a plan that puts off most of the cost reductions, about 70 percent by one estimate, until the final two years of the five covered. Delaying the pain is the most basic politics.

But who can give any assurance that the economy will continue at its present pace? Has someone repealed the laws of economics that have always produced cycles?

In a better world, we might expect stronger leadership from one side or the other to produce a more forthright policy. But Mr. Clinton seems determined to cast the Democratic Party in his own image as pragmatic and centrist, and his success in the election last November and in the opinion polls today lend strong support to that policy.

What is more puzzling is the lack of a clearly defined agenda on the Republican side now that they control both houses of Congress after so many years in the wilderness. In part, this can be traced to the fact that their highest-ranking leader, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, has been crippled. New polls show his approval rating below 30 percent, a figure not lost on other Republicans who might otherwise look to him for guidance.

But, Mr. Gingrich aside, it is plain that the Republicans have been spooked by the voters. After their great success in 1994, their failure in 1996 was all the more frightening. They don't have the votes to override vetoes in the Senate, and their margin in the House is flimsy. It is not a good time for displays of political courage.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 5/16/97

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