Where we came in, folks. Bill Clinton's Monday...


February 18, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

THIS IS where we came in, folks. Bill Clinton's Monday night speech and, presumably, his State of the Union address last night (this is written beforehand) are very similar in alarm and urgency if not in recommendations to Ronald Reagan's first State of the Union address 12 years ago tonight.

A new president says the economic situation has become so dire under his predecessor that he must take unprecedented steps to save the day. Otherwise the deficit will destroy etc., etc., yakety yak.

When Reagan complained about the deficit and the national debt they were peanuts compared to now. The Carter-Reagan deficit for 1981 turned out to be $59.7 billion. The expected deficit for 1993 is $327 billion. The national debt then was $1.08 trillion. Now it is $4.1 trillion.

We're on our third president and our seventh Congress since Ronald Reagan issued his warning and call to action. Isn't it just possible that the crowd in Washington just isn't up to the job? Isn't it just possible that we need to create a new machinery to deal with the nation's economic problems?

I say that because it is just possible that what is hard times for the rest of the nation is good times for "Washington." They have no incentive to change. Just the opposite. Sounds silly, but consider this:

In the 12 disastrous years since the first Reagan State of the Union address, unemployment rose significantly, underemployment soared, and wages for the average working man and woman have kept only slightly ahead of the rise in the cost of living.

But -- for members of Congress, Happy Days Are Here Again! The consumer price index has risen 61.4 percent since Feb. 18, 1981. Average annual pay for those still in the work force rose by about 80 percent in that period (1992 Labor Department statistics are not yet available).

In the same period, members of Congress raised their own pay from $60,663 a year to $133,600. That's 114 percent. More than double. Half again the increase for the average worker. Almost twice the increase in the cost of living.

What, them worry?

Those who subscribe to the scoundrel theory of politics can blame Paul Sarbanes or George Mitchell or even Bob Dole; Tom Foley or even Bob Michel -- all of whom were in Congress in February 1981 and still are.

But I think this problem goes beyond individuals. I think it's the system. After all, from Reagan's first State of the Union to Clinton's, 360 new representatives have been elected to the House, and 53 new senators have been elected to the Senate.

Every single one of them, I'd bet, campaigned on a promise to do something about the debt and deficit. Every one wanted to. And every one obviously failed, or we wouldn't be back to Square One.

Make that Square Four Trillion.

So what can be done?

Next week: Ross Perot as Alexander Hamilton.

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