Back Door to the Alamo

February 10, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington.--The government is not destined to become svelte, but the budget the president submitted this week -- the first real Democratic budget in 13 years, which is half a generation -- illustrates a paradox that gives cold comfort to conservatives: The largest achievement of modern liberalism, the welfare state, is now the largest impediment to the liberal aspiration for energetic government.

Candidate Clinton vowed that an end of ''gridlock'' between Congress and the executive branch would enable Democrats to ''reverse Reaganism.'' However, he is locked on a course that cannot deeply distress Mr. Reagan. It was partly set by President Clinton's budget ''victory'' in Congress last summer.

Then it was said that if Mr. Clinton could not pass his budget, his presidency would be irremediably crippled. He won, but the price Congress made him pay in spending caps and pay-as-you-go rules restricts his presidency to making minor adjustments at the margins of government.

Automated spending on entitlements devours half the budget. Add interest payments, which are not optional, and only about one-third of the budget remains for discretionary spending, including defense. For the first time in a generation -- for the first time since wartime 1969 -- discretionary spending is slated to decline in real, inflation-adjusted dollars, primarily because of defense cuts. And the ''discretionary'' sphere is more theoretical than actual. The government, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, is bound down by thousands of threads -- the intense interest groups rallying round their programs.

This is not a momentary astringency, it is a taste of the future. The elderly are the disproportionate beneficiaries of entitlement spending -- pensions and medical care -- and in two years the first of the 76 million baby boomers turn 50.

Congress is more conservative than the administration, a fact that devalues, for liberals, the prize of presidential elections. Consider what happened last November.

Two congressmen, Timothy Penny, D-Minn., John Kasich, R-Ohio, forced Mr. Clinton to fight fiercely to defeat, 219-213, their proposal for an additional $90 billion of cuts over five years. The administration says its new budget does about 70 percent of what Penny-Kasich would have done. Yesterday Sens. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Hank Brown, R-Colo., introduced legislation to do the rest.

And soon there will be a Senate vote on the constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget. Supporters say they are close to the 67 votes necessary to send it to the House, which almost certainly would send it to the states for decision. However, it is opposed by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., whose chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee gives him a persuasive arsenal of pains and pleasures.

The fact that the deficit is declining may have made the amendment seem less urgent but more feasible. When the deficit was much larger, critics of the amendment said balancing the budget would require spending cuts and tax increases on a scale that would be economically reckless and politically lethal. Now the politically popular amendment looks like a manageable extension of the partial spending caps and pay-as-you-go rules Congress has adopted.

If the amendment passes in today's climate of taxaphobia, which shows no sign of abating, pressure for more spending cuts will be constitutionalized. If it fails to pass, that may cause Congress to seek political protection by making additional cuts in President Clinton's budget, or by supporting the cuts he recommends but not the spending increases he wants his proposed cuts to finance.

Paul Simon, D-Ill., the prime mover of the amendment in the Senate, portrays the amendment as a stimulant of heroism, of sorts. He says the reason there were so many heroes at the Alamo is that the Alamo had no back door.

Suppose Congress passes and 38 states ratify the amendment, thereby boarding up the back door -- eliminating deficits as means of escaping difficult choices. If that happens now, when the middle class that has most of the nation's money has no intention of paying more taxes, the government will, over time, become merely a giant transfer-payment pump, a gray source of stipends from familiar entitlement programs for an aging population, and especially for the population bulge that includes Bill Clinton, who was born in 1946, Year One of the baby boom.

The federal government that Mr. Clinton and like-minded liberals see as an ''agent of change'' may be, very soon, a device defined by inertia -- entitlements, interest payments, defense and not much else. If so, Mr. Clinton, the first liberal president since Lyndon Johnson, might still be in office but he would be presiding over a government that Ronald Reagan could abide.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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