Budgeteers, Budget Tears

REPUBLICAN leaders in the Senate and House have peeled back another layer of the budget onion, and already the sting is being felt.

The goal -- a balanced budget seven years hence -- requires spending cuts over that period on the order of $1 trillion. If either of the plans set forth in the House and Senate is enacted, the government is going to look substantially different by the year 2002.

The plans -- as presented by Senate budget chairman Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico and his House counterpart, John Kasich (R) of Ohio -- outline spending-cut goals and make projections of how specific programs and agencies could be cut to achieve them.

Congressional committees now must cut into the next layer of detail: specific legislation.

The proposals represent radical change. Special-interest groups, who have reasons either to protect or to eliminate specific programs, will be making their opinions loudly heard. That is why it is important for citizens to inform themselves about the proposed changes and express their views to Congress. On the chopping block, to cite just a few examples, are the entire departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy; funding for public broadcasting and the arts; AmeriCorps, the youth national-service program; home-heating aid for the poor; and parts of NASA and the Forest Service. To bring in new revenue, the Arctic National Wildlife Refugee would be opened to oil and gas drilling.

Ideally, the budget-deficit Gargantua would be attacked with a spirit of national unity and determination akin to the effort to put a man on the moon or to win the war against fascism 50 years ago. But Republican leaders have shown little interest in compromise. Democrats, with no incentive to pitch in, are content to let Republicans hold the bag of uncomfortable cuts.

The biggest savings come from revamping the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Republicans argue that spending would continue to rise for these programs by about 5 percent a year. Democrats say this really represents cuts, since inflation and the rising number of recipients will more than eat up the increases.

Such numbers games -- demagoguery, really -- on both sides don't much help citizens, who need accurate information with which to decide if the changes are what they really want.

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