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AND NOW TO SPENDING



Published: Thu, June 7, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Washington Post: The appropriations process for the fiscal year ahead is about to begin. Congress is quite likely once again to shatter the spending limits it pretended to impose on itself in the pious budget resolution it adopted earlier in the year. Republicans are busily laying the groundwork for blaming the Democrats. While Republicans remained in control of the Senate, "prospects were excellent for the first orderly, responsible . . . appropriations process in many years," President Bush's budget director, Mitchell Daniels, wrote the other day.

But that's not so. The prospects of staying within the appropriations limits in the budget resolution were never excellent because the limits were set artificially low. The budget committees followed the White House lead in holding them down to create the impression that there was extra room in the budget for the president's tax cut. The totals were set so unrealistically low that the administration and its congressional supporters actually felt the need to be deceitful about the deceit. For all the restraint they were proposing, appropriations would still go up a healthy 4 percent next year, they said.

Domestic spending: But that wasn't quite so, either. They got to 4 percent only by employing accounting gimmicks of precisely the kind that Mr. Daniels now deplores. They also neglected to mention that, because almost all the proposed spending increase was for defense, the domestic appropriations total was due to be cut in real terms. That's the money for highways, housing, education, law enforcement, the national parks, everything but the semi-automatic benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare. The cut would deepen over time. By the 10th year, domestic appropriations would be nearly 10 percent below the level necessary to keep pace with inflation and population growth.

That's how they proposed to pay for the tax cut, and the estimate makes no allowance for all the accounting tricks that were used to make the cost of the tax cut seem less than it will be. It does not allow, either, for the likely cost of the defense build-up the president appears to have in mind, or the cost of putting Social Security and Medicare on sound financial footings.

We don't suggest that spending can't be cut. But it can't and shouldn't be cut as much over time as this phony budget implies. The administration had no problem with the false accounting that was used in such abundance to pass its tax cut. Now it primly seeks a moratorium on such accounting for the spending process. "It demeans the practice of government and fuels public contempt for the entire process" to lie about the numbers, Mr. Daniels wrote the other day. He's right; we only wonder where he was a couple of weeks ago.




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