It Seems To Me

Chairman Bill’s Big Blue Book

When did the federal budget become a polemic?

When President Clinton’s budget for fiscal year 1999 came out on Feb. 2, we were all engrossed in l’affaire Lewinsky and the spin the White House was putting on it–right-wing conspiracy, executive privilege, Talmudic definitions of adultery, and so on. Perhaps interest in that subject has now abated sufficiently to allow us to turn our attention to the budget. I propose here to comment not on the policy it contains but on the rhetoric with which it is presented–on the spin the Clinton administration puts on its policy.

What is most striking to a person who has been reading budgets for a long time is how far the cult of presidential personality has progressed. In the past the budget (I refer here to the main book titled Budget and not the other five volumes that come with it) typically had two parts. One was the budget message of the president, written in the first person and signed by the president. Readers knew there was going to be a fair measure of boasting and self-serving in that section. But most of the book consisted of chapters about the functions of government, with such prosaic titles as “National Defense” or “Agriculture.” These were written in the third person, had lots of probably boring facts, and one could learn a lot from them. Of course, they reflected the point of view of the administration, but the reader didn’t have the feeling that he was constantly being urged to buy the Brooklyn Bridge. The president was scarcely mentioned.

The budget still has the president’s message and a section organized according to the functions of government. But now, inserted between these two parts is a long section–this year it’s 132 pages–still pretending to explain the whole thing but explaining it as having sprung full-blown from the brow of the president. The section has inspirational chapter heads such as “Preparing the Nation for a New American Century” and “Creating a Bright American Future.”

Each chapter and subchapter in this section starts with a quotation from previous utterances of President Clinton, set in italics and enclosed in a box. These quotations are of a banality that is hard to believe. For example, we have this:

Americans want the best for our children. We want them to live out their dreams, empowered with the tools they need to make the most of their lives and to build a future where America remains the world’s beacon of hope and freedom and opportunity. To do this, we must all make improving the quality of education in America one of our highest priorities.

There is an irresistible reminder here of Chairman Mao’s little red book, except Mao’s dicta were more pointed.

In these 132 pages there are, by my count, 113 uses of the word “president.” (I include nine cases of the word “his” used in close proximity to and referring to the president.) And what is the president doing on these occasions? Of course, he is working and proposing and having visions and making commitments. But he is not only working, he is, in some instances, working “hard”–to expand health care coverage and improve the nation’s health, to improve education and the lives of working families, to eliminate fraud in Medicare and Medicaid, and to crack down on violent youth gangs.

The president also has “initiatives”:

The Brownfields Initiative

The Water Quality Initiative

The Presidential Initiative to Increase Seat Belt Use Nation-wide

The President’s Initiative on Drugs, Driving and Youth

The President’s Education Technology Initiative

The President’s 1997 Antiterrorism/Counterterrorism/Security Initiative

The President’s America Reads Initiative

The President’s Initiative on Landmines

This is truly a president whose eye is on the sparrow.

Depending on your mood, this is either irritating or laughable. But I cannot believe that it is helpful to the president. The incredibility infects and pollutes everything else in the budget.

These pages are filled to overflowing with the names of programs to be created or increased. Each of these has to have a name with Capital Letters, and every capital letter has to be part of an acronym. (My favorite is NEXTEA. Anyone who knows what that is should win money on Ben Stein’s quiz show. Actually, it stands for National Economic Crossroads Transportation Efficiency Act.) The mind reels reading about all these good things that are being done for us.

W hat one would like to see is some listing of programs that are being reduced or not being introduced. After all, to govern is to choose, and to budget is especially to choose. We cannot appreciate the reason for the things that are to be done unless we can compare them with things that are not to be done. Why do we have a Seat Belt Initiative and not a Smoke Detector Initiative? (Maybe there is a Smoke Detector Initiative, and I missed it.) True, there are some cuts in expenditures and personnel. They are all the result of what we used to call minimizing waste, fraud, and abuse and what is now called the Vice President’s Reinventing Government Program. There are no identifiable places where anyone is asked to give up anything.

Well, there are two exceptions to that. The American people, especially young people, are asked to give up smoking–but to go on paying hefty taxes on cigarettes. By accounting maneuvers not worth describing here, this abstinence will enable the federal government to increase spending on a variety of programs, through an instrument modestly called the Fund for America.

The second exception is that we are to forgo using the prospective budget surplus for tax cuts or expenditure increases (other than those proposed by the president) “until we have a solution to the long-term financing challenge facing Social Security.” It is here that we have the greatest need for more explanation.

The formulation offered gives rise to the ridiculous table showing, for years beginning in 1999, an excess of receipts over outlays, exactly balanced by an item called Reserve Pending Social Security Reform, and a resulting surplus/deficit that is exactly zero. By that logic we had a zero deficit every year for the past 30 years, except that the “reserve” was negative.

Moreover, the little word “until” contains a number of ambiguities. Some have interpreted it as meaning that the surplus would be used to solve the financial problems of Social Security. That has now been denied by the Office of Management and Budget. Which leaves open the question of the president’s intention for the use of the surplus after some other solution, such as cutting Social Security benefits or raising payroll taxes, has been found. Would we then be free to spend whatever surplus there is in the unified budget? Or would we still want to apply some of that surplus to reducing the federal debt accumulated during the 30 years of deficits? Could we start spending it even if the discovered solution for Social Security’s long-run problem didn’t start to have a financial impact for another 20 years? In other words, is the “reserved” surplus to be part of any long-term fiscal program or only a carrot to be used to induce a solution to Social Security, after which the carrot can be eaten?

I raise these questions not to disagree with what may be the president’s program but to illustrate the inadequacy of the budget as an explanation of it.

When I told a friend of my problems with the budget as an explanatory document, he replied, “But you’re the only person who reads it.” That may be true. But 15,000 copies were printed.