Public needn’t fear budgetary ‘train wreck’ rhetoric

The noise you hear coming from Washington, D.C. is not the screeching prelude to a budgetary “train wreck.” It’s only the noise of a rhetoric wreck. There is nothing at all unusual about the failure of Congress and the President to reach agreement on a budget by the formal deadline, October 1 (this Sunday). And the “crisis” over the debt ceiling that is slated to follow later on this fall is only slightly more worrisome. We have gone through such “crises” many times since the 1970’s.

On one occasion, when Budget Director Jim Miller warned Ronald Reagan that refusal to reach a compromise with the Democratic Congress could bring government operations to a halt, the President replied, “Jim, Jim, settle down. Let’s close the place down and see if anybody notices.”

Nobody did.

In similar stalemates now Congress almost routinely adopts a “continuing resolution” that allows spending on essential services (such as defense) and entitlements (such as Social Security) to carry on, and for other programs to operate at a maintenance level. Such a resolution is available this weekend.

The situation will not be much different around mid-November if Congress, on another issue, tries to force financial discipline on the Administration by refusing to raise the federal debt limit. Mr. Clinton and his allies already are warning that Republican “blackmail” will spook the markets. Air traffic will be grounded. Federal contractors will be stiffed. Children will starve.

Perhaps these horror tales are meant to frighten us out of that national “funk” that concerns the President. Or perhaps the Democrats are just getting an early start on Halloween.

No, all the whoops of distress have but one purpose, which is to deflect the majority in Congress from doing what they promised: to cut the budget now in order to balance it by 2002. The people whose careers are built on an ever-expanding government sector–people who believe that downsizing is only for the private sector–are going to try to make you believe that the world is coming to an end. But it’s only their political assumptions that are ending.

Don’t get me wrong. Many proposed budget cuts are difficult to accept. Some reductions don’t make sense when considered by themselves. And almost all of us are for government spending when it favors a cause close to our own hearts. I can see the desirability of eliminating the national service program, “Americorps,” but a student benefiting from its payments probably does not. Consumers in Seattle and New York might cheer the overdue effort to end farm subsidies, but it’s a hard sell in Louisiana cotton country or Wisconsin dairlyand.

Moreover, the truth is that relatively little of the budget savings needed will be achieved just by cutting “waste, fraud and abuse,” or even by tackling special interest spending. At some point, you have to go into broadly popular programs. That Republicans are doing so, though gingerly, and that these reductions are being presented before television cameras as the mad slashing of mean-spirited conservatives, accounts for the sagging public approval ratings of Congress. Yet, with a national debt equal to $71,860 per family of four, we just can’t afford all the good things government intends to do for us. Spending growth needs to slacken.

Likewise, taxes do need to go down. The reason is not to make the rich richer, but to raise our savings rate, spark the investments that create jobs and to help working families make ends meet.

The question for voters is, do you really want to stay on the track to long term economic growth, or do you want to derail the train at the first signs of difficulty? For the Republican majority in Congress, the question is almost identical.

Unfortunately, most Democrats, as in the ’80’s, have already given their answer: Real cuts are for budgetary “outyears,” Washington, D.C.’s equivalent of the sweet-by-and-by.

But unlike the 80’s, when Republicans occupied the White House and Democrats controlled Congress, the tactical advantage is now with the GOP. If Congress wants to spend, a President has few ways to prevent it. If–as now–Congress does not want to spend, the President has even fewer ways to force it to do so. In a contest of wills, Congress probably can stand the pressure better than the President.

That means they also may not be deterred by short term drops in the polls. Perhaps the left has forgotten a pertinent lesson from the past, but it has not been forgotten by the GOP elephant. In 1990, when President George Bush tried to force budgetary restraint on a Democratic Congress, the artificial heat generated in the ensuing “crisis” was especially intense. Bush finally cracked and backed down. In return for limited future spending controls, he agreed to break his pledge on taxes (Remember “Read my lips”?). He was a hero to the media at the time, a real statesman. And the voters didn’t seem to care much–until they trounced him soundly in the next election.

In 1994 the Republicans ran on a Contract with America. They told the voters exactly what they wanted to do: cut spending, cut taxes and revive America’s economic growth. And they won a history-making victory.

They are now trying to do what they promised. Boogeymen are being thrown up to scare them off track, including Mr. Clinton’s holograph of a government “train wreck.”

But the ghost of George Bush scares them a lot more.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.