Year Five of the Bush-Clinton Era

GEORGE F. WILL

April 05, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- This city is said to be ''dazzled'' by President Clinton's performance.

Mr. Clinton's dazzling achievement was to get the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass what news reports called ''the outline of his economic plan.'' Outline, meaning sketch. Details to follow. In the 54-45 vote every Republican voted against the outline, and two Democrats joined them, including the only senator who must face the voters soon -- Bob Krueger of Texas, who in May must contest the seat that was given to him when Lloyd Bentsen became treasury secretary.

Last week Mr. Clinton got a taste of what will happen when Congress stops expressing sketchy intentions and starts dealing with details. He had said a month ago that his budget plan would generate $1 billion over five years by increasing fees for grazing livestock and mining metals on public lands. Last week five distinctly undazzled Democratic senators from Montana, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada (the federal government owns 47 percent of the total acreage in those states) dropped in on the Democratic president to explain the limits of loyalty.

Mr. Clinton, the five senators said, should drop that stuff about grazing and mining fees from the budget package. Otherwise they might not be able to say the package serves the national interest.

He dropped it. Aides say he is still committed to it. But the senators should be able to nibble it nearly to nothingness when it is not part of a comprehensive plan.

Small wonder the president wants to delay dealing with details. Trouble is, by doing so he is breaking the law. The president is required by law to submit his budget proposal to Congress on or before February 1.

President Clinton's announced intention is to ignore that law and get Congress to pass a budget resolution before receiving his budget. ''Sentence first -- verdict afterward,'' said the Queen in ''Alice in Wonderland.''

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell says critics of the president's outline must ''like the economic policies of the past four years.'' Not really. What is being called Year One, A.G. (After Gridlock) is really Year Five of the Bush-Clinton era. William Niskanen, Chairman of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, notes that ''almost every program Clinton would increase expanded rapidly during the Bush years'' -- children's programs (increased 67 percent), education and training (16 percent), aid to states and cities (60 percent), infrastructure (32 percent), nutrition (72 percent), research and development (20 percent).

The ''stimulus'' plan for the ''emergency'' we are in (our condition must be declared an ''emergency,'' otherwise current law would inhibit the new spending) is so wondrously implausible (an ''emergency'' $800,000 for the canoe course for the 1996 Olympics?) that even Congress is lukewarm.

So Sen. Robert Byrd, floor manager of the stimulus measure, argues that passing it is a matter of national security, or dignity, or something: ''I don't want to see the president meet with the Russian president with this bill mired in a filibuster.'' What would Mr. Yeltsin think?

Aside from drawing sketchy outlines and expressing vague intentions, the Democrats have enacted two significant measures in their first two months in control of the two political branches.

One, the Family and Medical Leave Act, mandates that the private sector (we will worry about its productivity and competitiveness later) provide a new entitlement, the right to up to 12 weeks of ''unpaid'' leave (certain benefits must be &L continued by the employer). And Congress has passed an extension of unemployment benefits, after defeating a Republican proposal to cut spending by a commensurate amount.

Mr. Clinton vowed to terminate programs that do not work or are no longer needed, but found only 11 of them in a $1.5 trillion budget. No wonder Washington is dazzled by this newcomer who has gazed upon the government and found almost all of it needed and working well.

Last week Democrats in the House of Representatives cast a cold eye on their own committees' budgets and concluded that they needed almost all that they have been getting. House Republicans, who rarely have fun, had some by proposing, as candidate Clinton suggested, a 25 percent cut in committee funding. Instead, the Democrats cut 5 percent, mostly by abolishing four ''select'' committees that do no legislating. They increased funding for nine committees and cut 21 committees by a total of $57,746, or $2,749.81 each, which may crimp purchases of paper clips.

House Democrats say they need all the money they are voting themselves so they can be fierce overseers of their fellow Democrats in the executive branch. Actually, ''oversight'' usually means members badgering the executive branch to do more for the members' constituents. Still, as an excuse, the ''oversight'' line is as dazzling as polished brass.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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