We need axes, not scissors

Myriam Marquez

August 31, 1993|By Myriam Marquez

THIS riddle brought to you by Vice President Al Gore: What do ashtrays, mohair and fruitcake have in common?

If you said government waste, you're on to something. So is Mr. Gore.

For the past six months, Mr. Gore has headed the National Performance Review, which intends to streamline the way the federal government does business. On Sept. 7, the vice president will release the review's findings.

Using those recommendations, President Clinton is expected to send to Congress by October a bill that would do away with programs that are no longer needed and nix picayune government purchasing regulations for everything from ashtrays to fruitcake.

Mr. Clinton also may propose making operations leaner by merging some federal agencies and giving states, cities and federal government workers, now boxed in by rigid rules, more leeway in running programs.

Where does mohair fit into all this?

The mohair subsidy, worth about $50 million a year to owners of Angora goats, is one of those wasteful programs that ought to get the ax. The subsidy began during the Korean War, when the military needed to buy lots of mohair for gloves to keep soldiers warm during Korea's frigid winters. Forty years later the government is still subsidizing mohair.

Voting to cut government waste is certainly not a Clinton phenomenon. There have been two dozen committees set up by presidents in the past 20 years to find waste. Most got nowhere in Congress.

Former President Reagan had the Grace Commission, which in 1984 offered nearly 2,500 proposals to streamline government. About 1,600 of those recommendations have been implemented since then, but almost a decade later we still have mohair and ashtrays and fruitcake to deal with.

Mr. Gore's effort may get further simply because the economic and political climate is such that Americans are much more concerned about the bottom line -- the mounting red ink in the budget -- than they were 10 years ago.

But even if Congress makes every proposed cut and strips away every burdensome rule (while maintaining those that protect the environment and people's health and safety), we still aren't likely to see a huge savings.

The most important issue that Congress must address is entitlements, which make up more than half the $1 trillion budget.

Social Security and Medicare -- those are the biggies. Their costs are growing beyond projections, and what is taken out of our paychecks to finance those entitlements isn't enough to cover the difference.

Even the new budget's projected cut of $50 billion in Medicare payments to hospitals and doctors doesn't tackle the real problem -- escalating health-care costs. All it does is ignore inflation and freeze payments to health-care providers. Hospitals and doctors aren't simply going to swallow the loss. They will have to pass those costs on to the insured.

Mr. Clinton's efforts to "reinvent" government and cut waste are welcome, but for every proposed cut you can expect there will be a member of Congress fighting to protect what the folks back home have grown accustomed to -- whether it's the mohair subsidy or dreadfully underfinanced Social Security.

During the budget battle, Mr. Clinton showed that he is open to compromise. But the budget he delivered was not the "shared sacrifice" he had promoted in the spring, nor will it end the annual deficits.

The issue, then, is no longer cutting government waste, for we all can agree on that.

The real issue is whether President Clinton is now willing to stand up to Congress -- stand up to his own party, not just the Republicans -- and show the nation that he means business and not business as usual.

Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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