Congress Puts Programs Before Deficit Reduction

WHEN members of Congress considered how to vote this week on legislation to reduce the budget deficit, they fought competing impulses: to appear tough on the deficit and to have money available for government programs.

The desire to radically cut the deficit lost - at least for now.

``We're Jekyll and Hyde on the budget,'' said Rep. Tim Penny (D) of Minnesota in an interview before the Nov. 22 deficit-cut vote.

The crime bill passed last week by the Senate is a case in point. Only a few months after this summer's monumental effort at ``budget reconciliation,'' which provided $500 billion in deficit reduction over five years, the Senate suddenly moved to double spending on crime-fighting, from $10 billion to $22 billion.

Public anxiety over crime had emerged as a key issue in elections earlier this month, and senators were happy to leap up and pledge more money for police and prisons. ``If there's a hot-button issue, we'll spend what it takes,'' Mr. Penny says. ``So in many ways, Monday's vote [was] the day of reckoning.''

Penny has thought a lot about this issue. He and Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio wrote the proposal that provided for the deepest cuts in government spending - $90 billion over five years, taken out of appropriations and entitlements like Medicare - and assigned them to deficit reduction. The so-called Penny-Kasich plan was voted down 219 to 213, but it had picked up enough support by the end of last week that President Clinton deployed himself and his troops to make sure it didn't pass.

So does that mean Mr. Clinton, and all the members (mainly Democrats) who voted with him to defeat Penny-Kasich, are soft on the deficit?

The president doesn't think so. In a letter to House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington on Nov. 19 explaining his opposition to the plan, Clinton touted the deficit-slicing moves he has already made this year, including the $255 billion in spending cuts in the budget-reconciliation package.

In order to give House members something to vote for in opposition to Penny-Kasich, Clinton also beefed up his own package of spending cuts to $37 billion. That plan, approved by 272 to 163 votes, includes $2.6 billion in ``rescissions'' - the cancellation of already appropriated spending - and savings to be realized from his plan to reinvent government, including the reduction of the federal work force by 252,000 people. Where will the money go?

But in contrast to Penny-Kasich, which devoted all of its savings to deficit reduction, the Clinton administration was vague about whether it would apply its spending cuts to other government initiatives or to deficit reduction. The Senate, for example, wants to use the savings from the reduction in the federal work force to fund its expanded crime bill.

The Clinton team had several serious objections to Penny-Kasich. First, administration economists warned that it would damage the economic recovery and long-term growth.

Officials also charged that it would have killed health-care reform by applying $40 billion in savings from Medicare reform to deficit reduction, leaving that money unavailable to implement the new health-care system. Defense Secretary Les Aspin said the proposed deep cuts in defense spending would have put national security at risk.

On the other side, Penny argued that not ``getting serious'' about the deficit now will result in higher interest rates and damage long-term economic growth. In his corner was the Concord Coalition, the national organization dedicated to deficit-reduction founded by former Sens. Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts and Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire. A boost from Tsongas

Mr. Tsongas, who called a few members to boost Penny-Kasich, speaks favorably about the approach in broad terms. The argument of avoiding deep deficit reduction during an economic recovery is ``a convenient excuse,'' he says.

``The more people understand what's going on and the more people understand the consequences of debt, the more positive their reaction to our proposal,'' which is even tougher than Penny-Kasich, he says.

But analysts of public opinion argue that the public is just as ambivalent about deficit reduction as Congress: Americans want to cut spending and they want the government to spend money on programs that matter to them. More precisely, the public wants wasteful spending cut.

``The vote for [Ross] Perot was misinterpreted,'' says Democratic consultant Mark Melman. Congressmen initially viewed it as a blanket statement in favor of cutting the deficit at all costs, when in fact it's more selective than that.

``Even Penny concedes that, on average, members get more calls when they're cutting programs than when they're raising taxes,'' says an aide to the House Democratic leadership, which opposed Penny-Kasich.

Indeed, members of Congress can be accused of being too representative of their districts, says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts.

But Mr. Frank points out that Congress has lately, after repeated attempts, voted to kill several federal programs that had come to symbolize extravagant government spending, such as the wool and mohair subsidy and the Superconducting Super Collider.

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