String of broken promises results from diet high in pork

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August 08, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Republicans say their fight to cut taxes by $800 billion over 10 years will be a long stride down the road to heaven, and failure to cut will pave the path to hell because Democrats will spend the projected surpluses promiscuously.

But before taking this seriously, take note of "academic earmarks," -- appropriations Congress awards to colleges or universities without normal competitive, merit-based reviews.

The Chronicle of Higher Education says this "academic pork barrel swelled dramatically this year, reaching the highest dollar total ever," -- $797 million. This 51-percent increase over the last year's $528 million indicates the reality behind the Republican-controlled Congress' promises of frugality.

An axiom about campus politics -- that the bitterness is inversely proportional to the stakes -- fits today's fracas between the parties about tax cuts.

The stakes would be as large as Republicans say, if Republicans meant what they say about their readiness to restrain discretionary domestic spending. They don't.

They say they will adhere to the spending caps in the 1997 budget agreement, which is necessary for a surplus to be realized. But adherence would involve a decade of significant decline in the kind of domestic spending that the GOP-controlled Congress is unwilling to vote.

Where's the emergency?

This is an age of remarkably proliferating "emergencies." Last year, Republicans participated in labeling $21 billion as spending for "emergencies," thereby making it not count against the caps. And they are at it again.

The pertinent law defines an "emergency" as something unpredictable. Recently, Republicans designated "emergency" spending for the constitutionally mandated 2000 Census, which has been predictable for 211 years.

Now a $7.4 billion agriculture "emergency" is at hand. Predictably.

Democrats seem to believe this: Government frames society, providing laws, physical infrastructure and human capital (education, particularly) that fuels commerce.

So government is responsible for all economic outcomes, and the economy is essentially government property. So a dollar of surplus revenue devoted to a tax cut is a government dollar "spent."

The best reason for Republicans to cut taxes is to reject such thinking, root and branch. But the Democrats' manner of speaking -- the semantics of statism -- is so familiar that its premises pass unnoticed, and Democrats know better than to make them explicit.

Democratic blather

Instead they say the 10-year, $800 billion tax cut is "reckless," "risky," etc. But if America's almost $9 trillion economy grew not at all during the next 10 years, cumulative Gross Domestic Product in those years would be almost $90 trillion, concerning which $800 billion resembles a rounding error.

A conservative case can be made for not cutting taxes and instead using the surplus to pay down the debt, thereby reducing the government's presence in capital markets and reducing interest rates -- a kind of stimulative tax cut. But Republicans say the political class' itch to spend is too strong. They should know; they are members of that class.

Republicans' desire to define themselves with tax cuts confronts a paradox: Cuts seem least urgent when they are most affordable. When the economy is humming, the sound conservative instinct is to not mess with success. And when the economy is flooding Washington with revenues, it also is filling taxpayers' bank accounts, making tax relief feel less urgent.

Government growth has slowed since the arrival of the Republican "revolution" in 1995-96, largely because of something Republicans are rightly vowing to reverse -- the decline of defense spending.

More than 300 programs have been eliminated, but these were mostly wee things, and the annual savings of about $3 billion about equals the increase since 1995 in the budget (now more than $34 billion) of the Education Department, which Republicans vowed to abolish. Another department Republicans targeted for extinction, Commerce, now has a budget 40-percent higher than in 1995.

Government economic statistics include the category "durable goods," defined as things that last at least three years. Republican goals are not durable goods.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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