Returning to the scene of the 'crime'

PHILIP MOELLER

October 24, 1990|By PHILIP MOELLER | PHILIP MOELLER,SUN BUSINESS EDITOR

A political announcement I never expect to see:

"My fellow Americans. It's only 13 short days until we celebrate Representatives' Anti-Incumbent Day (RAID). As you go to the polls on Nov. 6, please remember to vote RAID -- it knocks 'em dead."

Last week's column -- a glib, shallow, mean-spirited attack on Congress and the White House -- was criticized by some readers as, well, glib, shallow and mean-spirited.

I plead guilty.

And, as the nation suffers through yet another week of nonsense over failure to come up with a federal budget agreement, I feel obligated to repeat the crime.

It is true that running the federal government is tough work. Doing a good job would be difficult even without the pressures of re-election and external economic shocks. Competing interest groups, well-informed and well-heeled, can make a shambles out of the governing process.

But, running any large organization is difficult. The only way a chief executive officer could stay at the head of a company with a record as poor as the one posted in Washington was if he controlled the company's stock. No head coach would be allowed to manage a team that performed as badly as the Federals -- even Tom Landry got the boot in Dallas after a few weak seasons.

And we're not talking about a few bad years here.

We're talking about a record of sustained incompetence, through good years and bad years, that would be laughable were it not our futures and our kids' futures that are being gambled away.

Here is the record going back more than 20 years, to 1970. There is a deficit every year. Not just during most of the years, and not just during an economic downturn, when you'd expect the federal government to help cushion the private economy. Every year.

Further, it's probably getting worse, not better. Despite the Gramm-Rudman law mandating a balanced budget by fiscal-year 1993, and despite eight years of economic growth, the deficit shows distinct signs of actually widening -- a tendency that can only get worse as the private economy finally starts to cool down.

This trend has been partially masked by growing surpluses in Social Security funds, courtesy of higher taxes in the 1980s. These funds reduce the amount of the overall deficit but, of course, are not supposed to be spent on general government operations but for Social Security needs.

(The thinking in some circles was that once the baby boomers reach retirement age, there will be a falloff in the number of working people whose tax payments fund the Social Security system. As a result, system planners persuaded Congress to raise Social Security taxes and build up a nest egg of sorts that can be drawn down once this inevitable demographic shift starts reducing tax payments and raising beneficiary payouts.)

Here's what the deficit has looked like since 1970. The "Total" column includes Social Security receipts and some other so-called "off budget" programs; the "On Budget" column measures the shortfall between related spending and revenues on other programs. All figures are in billions of dollars.

Even including Social Security monies, lawmakers are spending more than $1.20 for each $1 taken in. This performance isn't close to a balancing act and wouldn't be even if Congress didn't face huge bail-out costs in dealing with the savings-and-loan mess (a subject of past and future columns).

Faced with this unbroken string of deficits, one might think that Congress would finally throw in the towel and accept a constitutional amendment for a balanced federal budget.

After all, state governments have learned how to live with such a restriction.

But, no, accepting such a limit would be a mindless relinquishing of governmental responsibilities, according to some of our leading legislative lights. You elected Congress and the president to govern and make the hard choices, these leaders say.

Sadly, our political system is fatally biased toward pleasing today's voters at the expense of tomorrow's citizens. Unable to say no, and without the discipline enforced by a balanced-budget requirement, the legislative and executive branches are predisposed to spending us into economic decline, if not ruin.

The current budget impasse, histrionics notwithstanding, doesn't really address the cause of our ills but only the symptoms. It even contains new spending initiatives, including a multibillion-dollar measure designed to reduce pay gaps between federal and private-sector employees.

In the private-sector world, employees are preparing for a possible tough recession. Fears of layoffs are on the rise -- a risky situation that has long justified much of the difference between private-sector salaries and those in government, where layoffs are rare indeed. In Washington, legislators are greeting the prospect of a downturn by preparing to raise federal salaries.

You figure it out. And don't forget RAID.

Total............ On Year... (billions)...... budget

1970..... $ 2.8............$8.7

1971...... 23.0........... 26.1

1972...... 23.4........... 26.4

1973...... 14.9........... 15.4

1974....... 6.1............ 8.0

1975...... 53.2........... 55.3

1976...... 73.7........... 70.5

1977...... 53.6........... 49.7

1978...... 59.2........... 54.9

1979...... 40.2........... 38.2

1980...... 73.8........... 72.7

1981...... 78.9........... 73.9

1982..... 127.9.......... 120.0

1983..... 207.8.......... 208.0

1984..... 185.3.......... 185.6

1985..... 212.3.......... 221.6

1986..... 221.2.......... 237.9

1987..... 149.7.......... 169.3

1988..... 155.1.......... 193.9

1989..... 152.0.......... 204.7

1990..... 220.1.......... 276.0

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