Budget Cutting: Round Two

November 03, 1993

Congress will get a second chance to hack away at chronic federal deficits before it adjourns this month, but the fervor it brings to the task may be a lot less that last August's rhetoric suggested. President Clinton's welcome proposals for a complete overhaul of government procurement practices could save significant sums over the next five years, but it could also have the adverse effect of giving Congress a chance to opt out of any serious budget cutting before it goes home for the year.

Thanks to a bipartisan coalition of deficit hawks, however, members of the House (and perhaps the Senate) may be forced to vote on alternative proposals to cut federal spending a whopping $103 billion over the next half decade. Unlike the administration package, which foresees using some $5 billion of the savings to fund the pending anti-crime bill, the hawks would earmark every dollar for deficit reduction. They would also means-test Medicare, a proposal sure to raise the hackles of the gray-power lobby.

This second round of budget cutting sets the stage for more serious work in 1994, when Congress will be under election-year pressure to convince impatient voters that it can put the government's house in order. The administration will be intent on showing that Vice President Al Gore's plans for "re-inventing government" can bring on savings and efficiencies in the mammoth federal bureaucracy. But conservative Democrats and Republicans will be insisting on a more direct approach. As Rep. Timothy Penny, D-Minn., remarked in presenting 80 specific proposals: "The only way to cut the budget is to cut the budget."

That means eliminating obsolete government programs, canceling costly but marginal weapons systems, putting real caps on the runaway growth of popular middle-class entitlements and reducing the size of the federal work force.

With the president already absorbed with health care reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement, Congress may not get into the kind of prolonged debate seen last summer. But anything to keep public attention focused on the need to get deficits under control is a step forward. Round Two in the budget battle should not be in vain.

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