Budget fudge

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The Securities and Exchange Commission has been cracking down lately on "creative bookkeeping" by corporations. Executives go to jail if the sham is bad enough.

It is a good thing the SEC doesn't turn its stern eyes on its political masters - the White House and Congress - who play accounting games to please (or deceive) the voting public. If it did, some politicians would probably end up in the hoosegow.

"These are the guys who invent the rules," says Fred Ross, a budget expert with Washington Research Group. "There is not much you can do about it."

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This is bipartisan book-cooking.

President Clinton, in his budget last winter, included tax hikes to finance spending increases he knew the Republican-controlled Congress would not OK. He put them back in his midyear budget review last month.

Congress has just passed a $792 billion tax cut that Mr. Clinton promises to veto. It is plastered with accounting rouge.

One reason for the games is the 1997 Budget Control Act that put tough caps on the growth in "discretionary" spending. That's spending outside of interest on the national debt, Medicare and Medicaid payments, and other nonentitlement expenditures. Neither the congressional Republicans nor the White House want to be in a position where the other party can accuse it of busting the spending caps.

Nor does either party want to appear to be poking a hole in the "wall" they supposedly are erecting to protect the Social Security Fund surplus. Over the next 10 years, payroll tax revenues are forecast to exceed benefit payments by almost $2 trillion.

As a result of these fears, the fudge factory has been working overtime.

Congress has been classifying routine discretionary appropriations as "emergency spending" - and thus exempt from the caps.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and other Washington watchdogs keep reporting gimmicks in some detail - detail unsuitable for television news sound bites.

For example, the $792 billion tax-cut bill that emerged from a conference committee sunsets many principal provisions after 2008. These include the reductions in income tax rates and marriage-penalty relief.

The Senate-House negotiators found that necessary to keep the total to $792 billion.

But that would be virtually impossible as a practical matter, CBPP analysts say. Congress would have to raise taxes by $54 billion in 2009 to keep the budget balanced.

Besides, it would be politically risky.

"This is politics, not policy," notes an analysis by Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a group that describes itself as "progressive."

What will likely emerge from all this smoke and mirrors next month or in October is a deal between the White House and Congress that Mr. Ross, at least, thinks won't be all that bad.

The tax cut will be closer to Clinton's $300 billion than the Republican's $792 billion. Many special tax loopholes for business will be gone. A budget reconciliation act will "rebase" the caps in a way that swallows up last year's and this year's emergency spending stuff tidily.

The president will sign it.

Ross suspects discretionary spending will be up only a few billion in fiscal 2000 from this year's $592 billion.

Further, revenues keep piling up. And spending in some areas, such as on the medical plans and interest on the debt, is coming in under budget. Ross expects a $125 billion to $130 billion surplus this fiscal year, bigger than the $120 billion forecast by the Congressional Budget Office.

Tax revenues are reaching a new peacetime high of about 21 percent of gross domestic product. Republicans point to that.

On the other side, spending - another measure of the size of government - is running just over 18 percent, modest by recent historic standards. Democrats are likely to note that.

Surpluses are better than deficits. They reduce the national debt, cutting future interest charges and bolstering Social Security.

And wouldn't it be great if Washington was just straightforward in its budget actions.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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