Our leaders wrestle with reality

Washington: Congress and the White House are wasting a prime opportunity to invest in the future of the nation.

October 17, 1999|By ROBERT l. BOROSAGE

CONGRESS HAS failed once more to pass a budget. So its Republican leaders are headed into another high-stakes showdown with the president. Think of it as "budgetmania," an offshoot of "Wrestlemania": House Speaker Dennis "Dandy Denny" Hastert, an Illinois Republican, teams up with Majority Whip Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, a Texas Republican, to take on President Bill "Slick Willy" Clinton, the defending champion.

At stake, a $500 billion purse, give or take a few billion. Smoke, mirrors, posturing, lots of disguises, villains and heroes. At ringside, the inside operators lobby to make certain the performers produce a few specials for them, paying customers along the way.

With the economy humming, there seem to be no real losers in these melodramas, except, of course, the American people. They pay for the show. But they shouldn't be misled by the faux tableau of good vs. evil. What unites the combatants is far greater than anything that divides them.

For example, both GOP congressional leaders and the Democratic president strike disingenuous poses. Republicans trumpet tax breaks paid for by spending cuts they can't agree on. The president stands for more investment paid for with tobacco-tax increases he can't get. Both pledge to adhere to spending limits they have violated and to save the Social Security surplus, even as they raid it.

More strikingly, with prosperity producing a growing surplus, both the GOP Congress and the Democratic president project deep cuts in domestic programs, including funds for teachers and schools, for research and development, and for children. After almost two decades of austerity enforced by budget deficits, the leaders of both parties plan for yet another decade of harsh cuts. The president plans to hack off another 13 percent from current domestic spending by 2009, the Republicans an impossible 28 percent. Prosperity's bounty will go primarily to pay off part of the national debt.

The name-calling and arm-twisting distract from the reality of this bipartisan accord. In the midst of prosperity, the country's leaders are booting away the opportunity to begin making investments vital to our future.

It doesn't take much thought to know what these are. Clinton traveled to New Orleans recently to bring attention to a school with a leaky roof and buckling floors. He needn't have gone so far. One in every four school buildings is in need of "extensive repair or replacement," according to the General Accounting Office. The average age of public-school buildings is 42 years; 2.2 million new teachers are needed to meet the demand of rising school populations. Clinton sensibly chastises Republicans for cutting his pilot program for rebuilding schools, but he joins with them in planning to reduce federal education spending as a percentage of the economy over the next decade.

Transportation problems

Travel across the country. Our airports are perilously overcrowded, with air travel continuing to expand. Fast trains are a foreign concept. Mass transit is woefully inadequate. Interstate highways are in disrepair. One of every three bridges is rated "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete." Yet the GOP Congress and the Democratic president plan cuts in transportation budgets.

Three Americans die each day and 1 million fall sick each year from bad water. Drinking-water systems serving more than 50 million Americans don't meet national health standards. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly $140 billion will be required for water-system investments over the next 20 years. But environmental spending will have to be cut over the next decade.

Liberal economists generally make an economic argument against what Clinton called the "investment deficit." Billions are lost in traffic delays. The lack of skilled workers retards growth. Future markets will come from new discoveries. A healthy work force is a more productive one. Clearly, public investment is a central foundation for economic prosperity.

But the next decade of austerity projected by the GOP Congress and the Democratic president represents more than economic folly. For many Americans, it represents the breaking of a social compact, of a promise we make to each other.

By bipartisan accord, Washington pursues a global economic policy that generates rapid turnover and change. Workers are told they must prepare to have six or seven jobs in a lifetime. Some 500,000 manufacturing jobs were lost during the last 18 months of prosperity. Yet, by bipartisan default, Washington plans to invest less in training programs already in sorry shape.

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