WHEN will White House and congressional budgeteers learn to stop cooking the books? When will they overcome the lure of political expediency and restore a sense of honesty and realism to the raising and spending of federal funds? Not this year, apparently.
The story begins a month ago when Bush administration officials huddled with congressional leaders to outline a budget for fiscal year 1990. Since then, House and Senate have put together $1.17 trillion budgets that are faithful to that outline but little else.
The bottom line, artfully crafted to meet the Gramm-Rudman deficit goals, relies on what Congressional Quarterly calls ``one-time windfalls and accounting gimmicks that would have no bearing on long-range fiscal policy.'' It still is based, as CQ said, ``on questionable assumptions about the economy's future health.''
Sen. Ernest Hollings, a co-author of Gramm-Rudman, says he's ``tempted to call it a conspiracy.'' Rudolph Penner, former head of the Congressional Budget Office and now at the Brookings Institution, says ``the longstanding tradition of fudging the numbers ... is much worse than it has been.''
It's not that there aren't ideas around on how to tighten Uncle Sam's belt. The Heritage Foundation has just put out a plan to save $128 billion next year and eliminate the deficit by 1993. Being a conservative group, Heritage targets entitlements (including social security) and domestic programs while cutting the maximum capital-gains tax rate and giving the Pentagon a 3-plus percent raise.
More liberal organizations, like the Defense Budget Project, would go after military spending, especially new procurement programs that could set up another ``bow wave'' of increased outlays in coming years as future weapons come on line. Without such cuts, the group warns, ``the long-term mismatch between defense resources and defense programs'' will not be corrected.
The General Accounting Office this week issued a similar warning. The GAO says it will cost the Pentagon $100 billion more than planned to do everything it wants over the next five years.
Part of the problem, of course, is local political pressure. Liberal Rep. Thomas Downey of New York, for example, jumps to the defense of the Navy's F-14D fighter, which is built by a Long Island firm.
Meanwhile, the speechifying about the need for cuts goes on.
The answer, as Rep. Jon Kyl of Arizona said in a defense budget hearing, is for ``members of Congress to begin putting our money where our mouth is.'' That goes for the administration, too.