President Clinton's 25 percent cut in the White House staff sends a powerful message in advance of his State of the Union address on Wednesday. Economic realities will force him to call for an era of "shared sacrifice" by all Americans to combat staggering national indebtedness and to fulfill unmet needs in society. Government agencies and private citizens will be affected directly. To set the public mood, to make sacrifice acceptable, it is necessary for the White House to lead by example.
Like all segments of the federal government, the executive branch has grown through the years. Whether a Democrat or a Republican was in power, it did not matter. Payrolls went up, supporting agencies proliferated. The Victorian office building next to the White House, once sufficient to house the departments of State, Navy and and War in the New Deal era, now is devoted to White House staff.
While the savings of $10 million that will result from the decision to cut 350 jobs from a White House payroll of 1,394 is minuscule in terms of the $1.1 trillion federal budget, savings will become meaningful if they spread throughout government agencies -- as he has also outlined -- and the congressional bureaucracy. "We in government cannot ask the American people to change and not do the same," Mr. Clinton declared.
According to World Almanac tables, federal civilian employment went up from 2,956,426 in 1980 to 3,496,573 in 1990. Legislative branch employment climbed from 38,149 to 41,114, judicial branch from 13,276 to 22,703 and executive branch from 2,902,036 to 3,435,526. While this increase of 500,000 persons on the federal payroll is impressive, it is far surpassed by leaping growth at the state and local level.
Much of the Clinton cuts will result in sending "loaned" White House staffers back to the departments and agencies whence they came. But real cuts are due by October, mainly through attrition and early retirement. Whether the new administration's leaner staff will actually deliver more service to the American people is a matter of conjecture. But for psychological and symbolic purposes, this fulfillment of a Clinton campaign pledge was necessary before his Wednesday night address.
The president is expected to announce a $31 billion short-term stimulus package divided almost equally between new job-creating public works spending and tax breaks for business investment. This could lead to a temporary increase in the deficit, a lamentable prospect which is supposedly to be offset by long-range plans to slice $145 billion from deficit projections in the next five years. Many popular programs may be hit.
Whether Mr. Clinton can actually reduce the deficit and create a more equitable society will be determined only in future years. Meanwhile, his personnel cutbacks at the White House and his announced plan to cut 100,000 workers from the federal bureaucracy over four years should be matched by a reluctant Congress.