Now the Fight Over the Right Budget Balance

GOP defends plan to cut 372 agencies

SCHOOL loans would get slashed. Amtrak might have a rough ride. The Voice of America could fall silent, and as for the Commerce Department -- well, it might go kaput.

Republican budget-cut plans now forging ahead in Congress would remake the face of the federal government. Hundreds of agencies, commissions, boards, and departments might be eliminated or drastically shrunk in the name of reaching a balanced budget by the promised year of 2002.

Some of the budget cutters' likely targets, such as school loans or the National Park Service, are generally popular with the public. Many others -- such as Rural Business Enterprise Grants, or the Colorado Basin Salinity Control Program, are, if not unpopular, largely unknown.

The point of the whole process, say Republicans, is to give United States voters the smaller and less intrusive federal government they often say they want. The political danger for the GOP is that public desire for less government in general will not translate into support for less government in the particular.

''I believe the opposition of the American people will be clearly understood as they consider the ramifications of many of the proposals made in the Republican budget this year,'' claimed Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota.

Political jousting over the budget promises to begin in earnest this week. Both the House and Senate will debate their budget-balancing resolutions on the floor, aiming for a full chamber vote before Friday. Considering the support the plans have among the GOP majority, both are almost certain to pass.

The point of both plans is the same: Put the government in the black in seven years by cutting more than $1 trillion in spending. The House version slashes more deeply to make room for $350 billion in tax cuts that representatives have already passed.

IN their speeches this week, Democrats are likely to focus on the GOP's proposed cuts in planned spending on social services, such as a $300 billion trim in Medicare's budget. ''Democrats might also be able to draw some blood by talking about the impact on education,'' muses Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. The GOP is proposing to charge students interest on their government-backed loans while they are still in school, for instance.

Republicans are likely to focus not on spending particulars, but on the goal: a balanced budget. House GOP whip Tom DeLay of Texas said Friday that Democrats ''have been operating under the assumption that it is business as usual in Washington.''

Business as usual is one thing the GOP budgets most assuredly are not. It is true that they only represent caps for categories of spending, and few experts are putting money on the budget actually being in balance by 2002. But in the scale of their proposed cuts, the budget plans are extraordinary.

Consider what experts call ''non-defense discretionary spending'' -- the government budget minus the Pentagon and big pay-out entitlement programs such as Social Security. This pays for what most people consider ''the government,'' everything from the FBI to chicken inspectors to congressional salaries. Under the GOP budget plans, this category would be cut about 30 percent by 2002, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

REPUBLICANS' own figures show the reduction as somewhat less. The difference is largely that GOP numbers do not take seven years of inflation into account.

Whatever the exact level, workers in almost every corner of the government would feel the pinch. The House plan, for instance, lists 372 departments, agencies, commissions, and other US entities that it wants to eliminate or greatly reduce in size.

Some of the House targets have survived many past attacks. The Interstate Commerce Commission, one of many agencies Republicans list as necessary to eliminate in order to balance the budget, was founded in 1887 to oversee US surface transport. It was the nation's first regulatory agency.

The House plan would terminate the Voice of America, whose radio programs reach 47 nations around the world. It would cut new construction for the National Park Service by half. It would eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Federal Maritime Commission, and end US aid for Amtrak.

Size is no guarantee against the budget knife -- the Commerce, Education, and Energy Departments would all disappear under the House plan. Nor are political connections. The Points of Light Foundation, begun by ex-President Bush, is slated to lose the half of its budget that comes from federal funds.

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