Budget balance and budget baloney Entitlements untouched: Delayed passage of fiscal 1996 budget no great achievement.

April 28, 1996

DON'T BELIEVE all the self-congratulation coming out of Washington about passage of a budget bill seven months after the 1996 fiscal year began. Republicans may have forced cuts of $23 billion in annual appropriations -- a not inconsiderable sum -- but they copped out completely on their heralded plans to do something about runaway entitlement programs. President Clinton and his Democrats may crow over having clobbered the GOP in political atmospherics, but they actually were forced at last into giving lip service to the goal of a balanced budget.

In clearing the decks on fiscal 1996, Congress and the White House were dealing only with one-third of the $1.6 trillion federal budget. Left on a steep upward trajectory were such popular benefit programs as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans payments -- the true source of a soaring national debt.

In contrast to the $23 billion reduction in programs subject to year-by-year appropriations, entitlement spending is growing by $86 billion this fiscal year. If the Washington Establishment continues to avoid touching these "third rails" of politics, they will keep climbing at a rate that would make a mockery of the drive to balance the budget by 2002.

The question now is whether anything will be done this election year to deal with the problem. Mr. Clinton's budget for fiscal 1997 supposedly would reduce entitlement spending by $100 billion by 2002. But his is a back-loaded approach that would put the onus on those in office after he has left the White House.

As for the Republicans, they talk a tougher game. Expect a series of proposals to cut specific benefits despite the political dangers involved. But their smartest move would be to call the president by accepting his figures untouched. Then Mr. Clinton would have to take his share of the blame as Medicare, Medicaid and welfare programs are pared back.

Despite failure on the entitlement front, cuts in discretionary funds helped reduce the projected fiscal 1996 deficit to $144 billion -- about half the amount when the present administration took office. Republicans prevailed in reducing the size of government even if Mr. Clinton won in the court of public opinion.

However intriguing it may be to rate the performance of the two major parties, both deserve bad marks for letting the entitlement cancer grow unchecked for still another year. Voters will hear much talk in coming months about cutting key benefit programs. What they should demand is action. Every delay produces an exponential cost increase down the road.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.