MANY of the most senior budget officials in the Clinton administration took the Amtrak Metroliner from Washington on Dec. 13 - an all-star team of number-crunching policy wonks.
They joined such angry prophets of deficit fighting as former Sens. Paul Tsongas and Warren Rudman in a day-long seminar on entitlement spending in the federal budget, much of which was conducted by President Clinton himself in one of his favored roles as explainer-in-chief.
Not by accident, the session has drawn day after day of media attention here in the suburban Philadelphia congressional district of freshman Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D).
This was the nearly perfect political horse trade of a media-driven age: high-impact, low-cost pork for antigovernment voters, skeptics who want to be walked through the numbers with charts, graphs, and plain language.
Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky is believed to have sustained serious political damage in her heavily Republican district last August when she cast the deciding vote for the president's budget.
Like other fiscal conservatives among the Democrats, she saw that it was too late to wring more spending cuts from the budget bill. But in exchange for her grudging vote, she got a commitment from the president to attend a conference on the entitlement spending that is driving up the federal deficit.
A veteran television journalist, Margolies-Mezvinsky knows how to make news. The conference means rocketing name recognition in her district while casting her at the center of the earnest concern over the deficit that infused the meeting. But the conference may not save Margolies-Mezvinsky, who, as a Democrat in a strong Republican district, was considered a long shot for reelection even before she voted for tax increases in the Clinton budget.
She drew negative press as well when conference organizers promised prominent panel positions to corporate sponsors of the affair. The White House warned that the president would not appear with any such panelists, and the sponsors remained offstage. Republican radio ads have also been using the conference to remind voters again of her budget vote.
That vote caused ``tremendous outrage'' in her district, says Bruce Caswell, a former Pennsylvania Democratic committeeman and a political scientist at Rowan College in nearby Glasboro, N.J. The conference this week may not compensate for that outrage, he says, ``but I think it really has to help her.''
THE larger purpose of the conference was to open a public dialogue about controlling a form of spending at the heart of the deficit problem. Entitlements are federal spending programs that are not given budgets every year; rather, they are benefits pegged to the number of people eligible to receive them. They include contribution-funded programs such as Social Security and unemployment insurance, as well as programs for the poor such as Medicaid and welfare.
``These are programs that are vital to people in a very literal sense,'' noted deputy White House budget director Alice Rivlin.
They are also half of the federal budget and virtually the only form of federal spending that is growing. By far the fastest-growing elements of entitlement spending are the health-care programs: Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor.
The conference is only the beginning of a two-year effort by the nonpartisan Congressional Institute for the Future to probe and develop public opinion and educate politicians about controlling entitlements. Early indications, says executive director Rob McCord, show voters at an immature stage of judgment. They want deep cuts in entitlements, but are unrealistic about what benefits would be lost.
The audience at the all-day conference, for example, applauded at every mention of cutting waste. Yet the experts on stage noted that entitlements are among the most efficient, waste-free functions of government.
The most passionate debate here concerned whether programs such as Social Security ought to be means-tested, cutting benefits to the affluent.
``I think one of the messages of this conference was that the people as well as the experts need to understand and debate the issues,'' says Alan Fiermonte, a graduate student who attended the conference.
Jamie Adler, a local public school teacher, was impressed with Clinton's ability to ``explain things in laymen's terms. I didn't even know what an entitlement was.''