What happened to the old Bob Dole?

Alice M. Rivlin

June 25, 1993|By Alice M. Rivlin

I HAVE such a longstanding respect for Sen. Bob Dole that I fantasize the old Bob Dole -- the responsible statesman -- will weigh back into the budget debate.

He was one of the first Republicans to recognize that the towering Reagan deficits endangered the health of the economy.

Ignoring the political risk, he stood up to his own president, who offered supply-side nostrums, blithely talking about "growing out the deficits" and minimizing their size by basing projections on rosy scenarios.

The old Bob Dole cut through the malarkey.

He knew the government was living beyond its means, borrowing the nation's savings, punishing farmers, home buyers and investors with high real interest rates. He knew there were no easy answers, that deficit reduction required tough political compromises involving spending cuts and tax increases.

The old Bob Dole, as Finance Committee chairman, then majority leader and finally minority leader, took on two presidents of his own party, in 1982, 1985 and 1990, to try to tame the deficit. He got precious little White House support but kept fighting for saner fiscal policy.

Now, finally, we have a president who is leading the fight for fiscal responsibility. Bill Clinton did not have to be urged or cajoled. His first priority was an economic plan to reduce the deficit by $500 billion over five years.

His plan included unpopular tough spending cuts: Well over 100 domestic programs would be cut by $100 million, including reductions in Medicare and agricultural subsidies and deep cuts in government administrative costs and personnel.

It called for tax increases on those most able to pay and a broad tax on energy. It showed the reductions in federal interest costs that would result from the lower deficits.

The plan was balanced and fair: Roughly half the deficit reduction would result from spending cuts, half from tax increases that would fall overwhelmingly on the most well-off Americans.

And the numbers were real: The estimates rest not on a rosy scenario but on the Congressional Budget Office's conservative assumptions, also used by the Congress.

Congress passed a resolution reflecting the main features of the plan. In working with it, we agreed to cut the deficit even more than our original proposal would have by putting a "hard freeze" -- no adjustment even for inflation -- on discretionary spending programs.

A reconciliation bill passed the House with only slight modifications in the administration's basic design. The Senate Finance Committee reached the same deficit reduction target, with differences in some tax and spending cut components; passage of its bill this week would move action to a conference.

Next, appropriation action consistent with the budget resolution would lock in spending cuts, so that half of all deficit reduction would come from those cuts. Indeed, under the Clinton plan, all ** discretionary spending would be frozen for five years.

No other president has been so courageous. The old Bob Dole would have led the cheering.

But instead of pitching in to help solve the deficit problem, Mr. Dole is sabotaging the effort with misleading rhetoric.

He says the Democrats' plans are mostly tax increases because some of their spending cuts do not count. He claims the appropriation cuts should not count because the budget resolution caps might not hold. (Why not? Those in the 1990 agreement held, and Congress is more serious about deficit reduction now than it was then. So is the electorate.)

He says cuts in interest costs should not count. (Why not? It's real money and he was happy to count it in the 1990 agreement.)

He says cutting federal subsidies by charging higher user fees is really raising taxes, although longstanding budgetary practice and common sense say otherwise.

He talks vaguely about controlling entitlement spending, but offers no specific proposals.

The old Bob Dole would have had little patience with such nitpicking. He knew deficit reduction is tough, requiring not only tax increases and spending cuts but user fees and interest cost cuts.

He would have recognized the administration's plan, in the House or Senate versions, as a balanced package of politically difficult changes, pleasing no one but designed to get the job done.

I still respect him, but I sure miss the old Bob Dole.

Alice M. Rivlin is deputy budget director.

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