Spurred by voters back home, lawmakers step up efforts to trim the deficit
Washington — The budget caldron is starting to bubble on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress, who returned this week from their Presidents' Day recess , report that voters are growing more concerned over the deficit.
It is far from certain that this heightened concern among constituents will result in any significant action to reduce the deficit before election day.
But there is activity - some of it moderately hopeful - on a number of fronts , including bipartisan negotiations and congressional initiatives to trim the deficit. On a less positive note, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says the administration has significantly underestimated the deficit its programs would produce.
Recent deficit-related action includes:
* Renewed bipartisan talks on deficit reduction. White House and congressional negotiators were scheduled to meet today to resume work on a plan to knock at least $100 billion off the deficit over three years. Called a ''down payment'' on the deficit, such a plan would take effect before the November election.
The talks had broken down after one session two weeks ago. Among the problems was an impasse over the Democrats' insistence that the talks center on defense spending and that proposed trims be submitted by the White House 48 hours in advance. The impasse has not been resolved, but one negotiator, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D) of Hawaii, said Tuesday that his side is resuming the talks to ''show our flexibility and good faith.''
Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan told a US Chamber of Commerce breakfast yesterday that the administration is ''hoping that it succeeds, that we get the down payment.''
Privately, some key administration officials are less optimistic about the outcome of the talks. But they say that if talks do stall, this might prod congressional tax-writing committees to act on their own to trim the deficit.
* The unveiling of a deficit-reduction tax package. Senate Finance Committee chairman Robert J. Dole (R) of Kansas disclosed details of a plan to trim the deficit $100 billion over four years. The Senate panel was scheduled to begin hearings today on the package, which is divided almost equally between tax increases and spending cuts.
Senator Dole's latest proposal is a scaled-down version of the $170 billion deficit-reduction plan he tried to sell last year, with some of the more controversial elements removed. The package could affect individual income taxes in a variety of ways. It would reduce the value of income averaging, trim the capital losses a taxpayer may deduct, extend the life of excise taxes on telephones, and limit the amount of tax-free health insurance a worker can receive from his employer.
Dole told reporters yesterday that failure to act on the deficit ''will be viewed as bad policy and cheap politics.''
''I predict President Reagan and the Congress will agree this year on deficit-reduction measures that will meet or exceed the down-payment goal of $ 100 billion over three years,'' he said.
* Behind-the-scenes deficit-reduction efforts. A half dozen moderate GOP senators, including John H. Chafee of Rhode Island and Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, are drawing up a package that would cut the deficit to $100 billion by 1987. This would require reductions of $148 billion, since the two men are using the CBO's baseline budget - and not the administration's budget or the CBO's correction of the administration budget - as their starting point. A spokesman for one of the senators said the plan should be released sometime in March.
* Release of the CBO's assessment of the Reagan administration's budget. Overall, according to the nonpartisan office, the administration overestimated government revenues and underestimated outlays, thus understating the likely size of budget deficits.
For example, the CBO finds that for fiscal year 1985, Reagan's spending plan would result in a deficit $12 billion higher than White House budget experts estimate. That difference grows to $124 billion by 1989.
Most of the differences in budget numbers spring from ''different economic assumptions, especially for interest rates,'' says CBO Director Rudolph G. Penner. In almost all cases, the administration's assumptions were more optimistic than the CBO's.
Perhaps the most striking example of the effect of differing economic assumptions is in defense spending. The CBO says the White House used an unrealistically low inflation figure in calculating the cost of its defense program. When the CBO uses what it feels is a more realistic inflation rate, the cost of the administration's defense proposals jumps $94.4 billion between 1985 and '89.
REAGAN'S BUDGET PROGRAM CBO vs administration estimates The CBO says the Reagan administration In billions has overestimated REVENUES of dollars 'FY84 '85 '86 '87 '88 '89 Administration $670 745 815 888 978 1,060 CBO $665 741 807 878 964 1,039
. . . and underestimated outlays . . . Administration $854 925 992 1,068 1,130 1,184 CBO $851 933 1,018 1,111 1,204 1,287
. . . resulting in a much bigger DEFICIT Administration $184 180 177 180 152 123 CBO $186 192 211 233 241 248