Clinton Budget Aims to Set a Tone Of Restraint and Clear Priorities

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ONE gauge of the difference between Democratic and Republican eras in the White House is the rise and fall of the budget line for employment and training.

The first budget drafted by President Reagan cut spending to train and help American workers get jobs by more than half.

The budget President Clinton has proposed for next year moves funding for such programs back above $9 billion - a 16 percent increase over this year - for the first time since the Carter-drafted budgets.

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This expansion is consistent with the Clinton administration's emphasis on offering more aid to working families going through hard times.

``One of the reasons I think President Clinton was elected in 1992 was that the American people wanted to reverse the budget policies of the previous 12 years,'' said budget director Leon Panetta Feb. 7. Those policies, he said, were ``unfair to working families.''

But for a budget reversal, the Clinton administration is pirouetting on some very fine points.

The spending shift in this year's budget amounts to less than 1 percent of the total. The total cut in federal outlays for next year, as toted up by Paul Leonard of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, is about $14.5 billion. New or expanded spending proposed by the Clinton administration is well under that figure.

The total federal budget will still be larger than this year's budget and budgets of the past, but the increase is in areas that rise and fall automatically, such as interest on the national debt and Medicare payments.

The basic shape of the budget, after all, was dictated by the 1990 budget deal under the Bush administration. The Clinton budgets are hewing to those strictures, established with such political agony when President Bush agreed to raise taxes. It has left Clinton little room for maneuvering.

Some spending priorities have emerged, however, from the Clinton administration's view of the world:

* Technology research and development spending is proposed to rise 22 percent, almost 50 percent over two years. Big winners include the electronic-data ``superhighway'' and public-private cooperative-research projects to benefit private industry. The National Institute of Standards and Technology in the Commerce Department, where most of these programs are located, has budgeted a proposed $935 million - up from $381 million two years ago.

* Training and education is proposed to rise 24 percent, 43 percent over two years. The biggest gains are for Labor Department training programs, which the administration proposes to expand 123 percent over two years ago. The new spending is aimed particularly at preparing students not bound for college for the work force and at retraining the unemployed for new jobs. Early reports that the administration would move money out of general training for low-income workers were not borne out. These programs are proposed for a 5.5 percent expansion.

* Justice Department spending would rise more than 24 percent under the Clinton budget, part of the new money directed to adding 50,000 more police officers to the streets, more prison beds, and strengthening the Border Patrol.

* Young children win some additional spending in the new budget - for immunizations, Head Start for poor preschoolers, and more money for the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program.

The cuts are in jots and tittles all over the budget from urban mass-transit funds to agriculture export aid. Defense spending does not quite keep pace with inflation. The themes behind the cuts, Mr. Panetta explained, are managing government better, adjusting at the end of the cold war, better targeting of grants, and choosing among other priorities.

``The one thing that ties together virtually all of what they call the investment areas are things that would boost productivity and long-term growth,'' Mr. Leonard says. He adds that he is ``a little troubled'' by some of the cuts in programs, such as low-income heating assistance and housing.

This budget is an attempt at ``more careful targeting,'' says Demetra Smith Nightingale, director of welfare and training research at the Urban Institute. ``It's a recognition that we have a different job market than 40 years ago, and the system hasn't changed.''

Some outsiders are troubled by the speed with which the Clinton administration is pumping money into the civilian technology-research program.

Most experts, even those who like the idea of government research to boost United States industry, are not sure how it is working yet or how to define what tax-supported research should do.

These programs are moving beyond the experimental stage ``without any clear results,'' says Cynthia Beltz of the American Enterprise Institute.

Of the whole Clinton budget, says Bruce Smith, a public-policy expert at the Brookings Institution, ``It seems to me that this is preambular. They're trying to create a climate for the health-care debate.'' The strategy is to look tough on spending before launching a vast expansion of government.

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