Barks from the Budget Director

April 28, 1993

Pity the poor, pummeled, put-upon budget director. Administrations come and administrations go, and always the boss of the White House Office of Management and Budget seems to wind up in the dog house. The latest inhabitant of canine digs is Leon Panetta, one of the best of the Clinton crew, who is currently charged with committing candor.

Mr. Panetta, a deficit hawk during his years on Congress, made the mistake of blurting out in the middle of Bill Clinton's Hundredth Day Week that the president's program is in trouble, a lot of trouble, partly because his boss must do "a better job of picking and choosing the battles he wants to go through." On Mr. Panetta's endangered list are aid to Russia, the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, the investment tax credit, the energy tax and the health care reform plan that has been entrusted to Hillary Rodman Clinton.

Let it be said right off that Mr. Panetta' indiscretions, much as they are deplored by the Clinton White House, can hardly be compared to those of David Stockman in the Reagan administration and Richard Darman in the Bush administration. Mr. Stockman revealed that Ronald Reagan's supply-side economics were based on a pack of lies and asterisks that would end up ballooning the deficit. He was right. Mr. Darman manipulated his budget projections with such cynicism that even Republicans didn't believe him. Yet he was often more on target than many of his critics in Congress.

Now comes Mr. Panetta, who gave up his job as chairman of the House Budget Committee to try to keep our new president focused "like a laser" on the economy and, by extension, on the need to drive down the deficit. Instead, he finds himself concerned about a triple dip in the recession that would undercut the administration's economic assumptions. He hears on Capitol Hill 1980s-type talk about how hard it is to vote for deficit reduction. And in wishing the president would "define his priorities" more clearly, he would prefer votes on tax and spending bills this summer before the administration takes on health care reform.

Mr. Panetta's caustic comment about Cabinet secretaries who talk about "enjoying the challenge" of their new jobs while he is "not having much fun yet" was reminiscent of Mr. Stockman's contempt for Reagan-era colleagues who didn't realize what they were doing or chose not to know.

After publication of Mr. Panetta's views, White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers described the budget director as "a very straightforward guy" (translation: a guy not easily subject to spin control) whose timing was a bit awkward. Both the presidential staff and the Republican leadership on the Hill are engaged this week in a public relations struggle over assessments of the Clinton 100-day record. It is clearly not the moment for a budget director to be candid, but we sure love it.

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