Grass-Roots Moves To Cut Federal Deficit Sprout, But Impact Still Limited

ROB NELSON has a way of communicating the size of the national debt to other twentysomethings: Each person's share is big enough to buy a large pizza every college day, or take 500 friends to a U2 concert, or save 60 acres of Latin American rain forest.

Mr. Nelson is handing out fliers with this message as part of a burgeoning grass-roots effort to focus young Americans' attention on the federal budget deficit and the cost of paying for it.

Nelson, whose group is called "Lead ... or Leave" is not alone. Last week, Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire and former presidential candidate Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts announced the formation of the Concord Coalition, which aims to "tell the truth about the country's current economic predicament and the future of the country." These two groups join Ross Perot's army of dissatisfied voters who make up United We Stand, America, which also has interests in bridging the budget gap.

Senator Rudman hopes his group can make a difference by speaking frankly to the American people. "Obviously, it has never been explained in a way that is comprehensible," Rudman said in an interview. The senator hopes to sign up millions of Americans ($25 for adults, $10 for students) over the next year.

Nelson, co-founder of Lead ... or Leave, has even greater ambitions. His organization is trying to get representatives and senators to sign a pledge to resign by 1996 if the fiscal year 1996 budget deficit is not cut in half from its current fiscal 1992 level of $333.5 billion. So far, 10 incumbents and a legion of challengers have signed the oath.

For the politicians who have signed, there is a real risk of early congressional retirement. Rep. Tom McMillen (D) of Maryland, for example, signed the pledge in August. His press secretary says Representative McMillen believes in term limits anyway and planned to leave Congress after 1998.

Other lawmakers are using the pledge in their reelection campaigns. "My grandmother has always told me that actions speak louder than words. Well, Grandma, a lot of politicians have been throwing around a lot of words for a long time about reducing the deficit, but today's the day for action," said Rep. Jim Nussle (R) of Iowa, who signed the pledge on Aug. 13.

Representative Nussle, who at 32 is the youngest member of Congress, is currently battling Rep. Dave Nagle (D) for a redistricted seat. Representative Nagle's press secretary, Barry Piatt, calls the pledge "a stunt." Instead, Nagle is an original co-sponsor of California Democratic Rep. Leon Panetta's proposal to eliminate the budget deficit by 1998. Why won't Nagle take the pledge? "He feels the country has had its fill of promises and pledges," Mr. Piatt says.

IF the grass-roots organizations make politicians and voters focus on the deficit, it can have a positive impact, budget analysts say. "It's positive if they get across the notion that it's a political problem, not a substantive problem," says Stan Collender of Price Waterhouse.

Carol Cox Wait, the head of Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, hopes that the grass-roots organizations work up enough support to create a "political crisis." Such a crisis, she says, "might force the two sides to the negotiating table next spring."

If the new movements are having any impact on official Washington, it's not apparent. Tom Bruce, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, says he has never heard of Lead ... or Leave and that the OMB has no comment. The White House also had no comment.

There have been other grass-roots appeals before; some are still continuing. Peter Grace's Citizen's Against Government Waste now has 500,000 members. On Oct. 17, it plans 165 rallies around the country. "We're happy to work with anyone as long as they don't raise taxes," says Tom Schatz, executive director.

Both new groups started out of frustration at congressional and official inaction. Concord Coalition's Rudman and Senator Tsongas, after taping a session of Face the Nation from Concord, N.H., felt they might be able to do something together to focus the nation. Tsongas's presidential effort had focused heavily on the debt issue. In frustration over the budget blowout, Rudman had announced his resignation from Congress.

Lead ... or Leave's Nelson, a congressional fund-raiser, joined forces with Jon Cowan, who worked for Rep. Mel Levine (D) of California. Their motivation was the fact that "our generation will bear the largest part of the burden of the mounting debt and interest."

Although both new groups support each other, they differ on how to reach the goal. Rather than cut programs for the young, such as student loans, which Nelson says are "investments," he suggests sacrifice by the older generation. "I don't agree with him on that," says Rudman.

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