Budget cuts hamstring Clinton

February 01, 1994|By Karen Hosler and John Fairhall | Karen Hosler and John Fairhall,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Years of belt-tightening talk in Washington is finally starting to pinch the behemoth federal government.

The new budget President Clinton will unveil next week will propose wiping out 100 federal programs and cutting the funding for 300 others.

A separate presidential mandate to cut the federal work force by 100,000 workers by the end of 1995 may lead to layoffs at many agencies.

In terms of extra money available for existing and new programs, the Clinton budget is even stingier than budgets proposed by Republican President Ronald Reagan.

Nine of 14 federal departments would actually have fewer dollars to spend across the country than they do now, according to Leon E. Panetta, director of the Office of Management and the Budget.

Particularly galling for the federal agencies and their champions outside of government is that this assault is being conducted by a government-loving Democrat.

"It's really a bizarre situation," said Robert Rapoza, executive secretary of the National Rural Housing Coalition, which advocates for the rural poor.

Mr. Rapoza complains that Mr. Clinton is proposing deeper cuts in rental housing program funds for the poor -- from $540 million to only $220 million -- than anything conservative Republican and arch foe Ronald Reagan was able to achieve.

It wasn't supposed to be this way with a Democrat in the White House.

But Mr. Clinton's hands are tied by strict congressional spending limits imposed first in 1990 and tightened last summer. And he further complicated his budget-making task by directing his Cabinet to slash the federal payroll by 100,000 workers.

Agencies may face layoffs

As a result, many agencies may face layoffs of younger employees if Congress fails to enact legislation authorizing retirement buyouts.

What's making life worse for federal agencies is that Mr. Clinton can only find the extra $16 billion or so he wants to spend for his own pet projects by taking it from their hides.

For example, a $50 million Indian Health Service hospital scheduled to open this fall in Shiprock, N.M., will have to get by with less than half its planned staff.

Duane Beyal, spokesman for Navajo Nation president Peterson Zah, said the 220,000-member tribe is facing "almost a crisis situation" because of the decision to cut 500 jobs in their medical facilities.

At the Department of Interior, blueprints call for slashing the personnel staff by 50 percent, while the Department of Agriculture is preparing to slim down by closing or consolidating more than 1,200 of its field offices and dropping 800 slots from its Washington headquarters.

"We must make the hard choices," Mr. Clinton told the nation in his State of the Union address last week, promising a budget that he described as "one of the toughest . . . ever presented to Congress."

In the great scheme of things, the budget war this year will be fought over relatively small changes: maybe $8 billion to $10 billion in discretionary programs out of $1.5 trillion in total spending.

And the Clinton folks hate pinching pennies for these social programs as much as anybody. There is no anti-government movement under way here like there was when Mr. Reagan tried to shift much of the nation's domestic spending to national defense.

In fact, Mr. Clinton is trying to take advantage of declining defense needs to shift money to social investments, such as the Head Start program for children, transportation and public works programs for the cities, and more police and prisons to combat crime.

But there isn't much of a post-Cold War "peace dividend" to go around, either.

In fact, one of the major budget battles this year is expected to be fought over whether the Pentagon, which has had its spending power reduced steadily since 1985, can yield any more without threatening national security.

"Some people think this was a grand conspiracy on Reagan's part, to run up the debt so high [with defense spending], there would never be any new money for liberal social programs," said Rep. Al Swift, a Washington Democrat. "I don't believe that was the intention, but it has had the same effect."

Mr. Clinton was forced to become a convert to the religion of deficit reduction both because of the huge debt run up during the Reagan era as well as increasing voter disgust at policy-makers who seem unable to discipline themselves.

The fiercely-controversial package of spending cuts and tax increases Mr. Clinton squeaked through Congress last year played a role in lowering the projected deficit for the coming year to $171 billion from earlier estimates of $300 billion.

But unless he wants to raise taxes again -- unthinkable in this congressional election year -- Mr. Clinton doesn't have any choice but to take any new money he wants to spend from existing programs.

In the resulting budgetary struggles for survival, one domestic .. priority is pitted against another, complained Bud Kanitz, executive director of the National Neighborhoods Coalition.

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