Cheer up, conservatives one of you got elected

November 14, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, asked Sunday what he would ''care about the most'' if he ''could accomplish only one thing,'' unhesitatingly replied: ''I would pass a balanced budget.''

Naturally he stipulated a balanced budget that would work this and that wonder -- ''open the doors of college to all Americans and continue the incremental progress that we've made in health-care reform.'' However, the telling fact is that the tribune of the liberal party cares most deeply about a balanced budget, or feels compelled by the Zeitgeist to say that he does.

Sunday he said that not only is a balanced budget what matters most, it is ''easily achievable.'' This, in spite of the fact that there has not been one since 1969. And when asked, ''Can you foresee any need to raise taxes?'' he briskly replied: ''No.''

Actually, he endorses various tax cuts, some in the form of credits and deductions as incentives for particular behavior. So he proposes to balance the budget with spending cuts or (stay tuned for his debut as a crypto-supply-sider) surging revenues postulated from a postulated surge of economic growth. The man who campaigned more conservatively than George Bush proposes to govern more conservatively than Ronald Reagan.

Washington may die of boredom unless there is forced busing to achieve ideological balance here. A smattering of liberals should be bused in from some enclave of that endangered species -- say, Minnesota. A bused liberal might say:

''The United States is a lightly taxed country. . . . Taxes other than Social Security contributions are much lower today, as a fraction of GDP, than they were during the Eisenhower administration. If all taxes other than Social Security taxes were as high now as they were in the Eisenhower days, there would be no deficit in the budget today.''

Did a liberal fire off that fusillade? No, it comes from someone of impeccable conservative credentials -- Herbert Stein, who studied at the Vatican of conservative economics, the University of Chicago, and chaired Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers. Such is the condition of contemporary liberalism; the conservative Mr. Stein criticizes aspects of current conservatism with more brio than any elected liberal does.

And now comes again the constitutional amendment requiring balanced budgets. In the 104th Congress the House easily passed it and the Senate, where 14 Democrats supported it, came within one vote of passing it.

The 105th probably will pass it, because there will be two more Republican senators, and because some Democrats endorse it for the same reason some Democrats endorse capital punishment -- as inoculation against suspicions of liberalism. Last week's election seems to have produced a substantial net gain of votes for it, partly because five of the six Democrats who will be freshmen in the next Senate have endorsed some form of it.

Recent Senate votes on the amendment have revealed, however, that some Democrats are just joshing when they tell voters they support it. When it actually comes time to vote, their support turns out to be contingent, for example, on ''protecting Social Security,'' a silly locution they use to justify removing the Social Security surplus ($66 billion in 1996) from calculations of annual revenues.

Turn the tables

The fiercest squeeze-the-government conservatives might cheerfully accede to this, which would increase (by $66 billion currently) the amount by which federal spending, absent tax increases, must shrink.

An alarmed Karen M. Paget, a contributing editor of the liberal bimonthly The American Prospect, writes that the amendment ''would complete the paralysis of activist government, the public philosophy that has distinguished modern liberals from conservatives.'' And she says ''a large majority of state legislatures are poised for a quick ratification without even a hearing.''

But hearings will be held and may cause second (or first) thoughts. Enthusiasm for federal parsimony may wane when states consider Ms. Paget's report that ''in non-recessionary times, states receive anywhere from one-fourth to one-third of their revenues from the federal government.'' For example, 54.3 percent of California's funds for children's services are federal, and 12 Ohio departments or agencies receive at least 40 percent of their funds from Washington.

Furthermore, a balanced-budget amendment will increase the vulnerability of the Defense Department. So the rush to ratification may be slowed when some conservatives who value the defense budget for the defense of the country join forces with liberals who value the defense budget as a jobs program.

But the decisive fact may be that the ratification debates in the states' legislatures probably will occur during the tenure of a Democratic president who says a balanced budget is what matters most.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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