OKAY -- WE KNOW what Republicans don't want. They don't want any more taxes of any kind. Neither "new taxes" nor "tax rate increases," according to a resolution approved two weeks ago by an overwhelming vote of House Republicans. GOP lawmakers may finally be dragged kicking and screaming to a White House-engineered compromise, but their record of resistance will be clear for the voters to see.
Fair enough. But it's also fair to turn the question around: If Republicans don't want any new taxes, what kind of federal government do they want?
First, we can assume from decades of Republican oratory -- not to mention the current push for a constitutional balanced-budget amendment -- that GOP lawmakers do not want the country to go on borrowing its way into oblivion. They want the government to live within its means.
So what kind of America can we buy with those means? Let's look at the July 15 updated budget for the coming year issued by the president's own Office of Management and Budget. From Table D-3 we see that OMB now expects the Treasury to take in some $1,121.7 trillion in FY91. Not bad.
But there are a few strings attached. First, some $414 billion of social insurance contributions in the mix are earmarked. Most of it is for pension and hospital-insurance payments for Social Security and other government pensioners -- got to pay those bills. But there are other obligations, such as employer taxes for paying unemployment benefits for laid-off workers. All this money isn't needed to meet current obligations (more on that later), but what you borrow now you have to pay back later -- with interest.
Then, since this is a get-clean budget, we probably ought to knock off a few billion of the hokier 1991 "revenue-enhancers" proposed by the administration as a substitute for taxes (the one-time windfall from a capital gains tax cut -- at the cost of lower future revenues -- and tougher IRS tax collection). Jodie Allen is editor of Outlook.
Still, that leaves almost $700 billion in "general revenues" to play around with -- individual and corporate income taxes, excise taxes, customs receipts and so on. (True, $20 billion or so of these receipts are supposedly dedicated to highway and airport improvement, but no one has paid attention to those commitments for years.)
Now what would congressional Republicans buy? Certainly they will feel obliged to continue paying interest due on outstanding federal debt -- more than half of it piled up in the last 10 years. Default has its attractions -- not the least of which is that it would assure that the budget would never again get out of balance, since no one would lend Uncle Sam another dime.
But precipitating a mammoth world-wide upheaval of financial markets is probably unwise in an election year, so it might be better to keep the debt serviced. Cost, after deducting interest receipts: $267 billion. (Though if we get desperate we might borrow back the $71 billion in interest paid to government trust funds that have "invested" reserves in federal securities.)
Then there's defense. Hill Republicans are mightily resisting Democratic efforts to cut the president's $306 billion spending request. Still, with peace breaking out all over, they might settle for $295 billion.
There are also the costs of prior wars: Veterans benefits and services will take another $30 billion. And Republicans will surely want George Bush to be able to conduct the nation's foreign affairs, the arena in which he shows to best advantage. The president says that wheeling and dealing overseas will cost us $18 billion.
Republicans will want to keep the White House and its offices operating and with another Republican nominee headed for the bench, they'll want the federal court system in reasonable trim. Oh, and Congress will probably want to keep paying its own board and keep. Total tab: $4.5 billion per annum.
So far we've kept the nation and its highest officials standing tall and we've spent -- hmm -- $614.5 billion. Oh well, we've still got more than $85 billion left to provide some services to the rest of us. Let's start with law and order, something Republicans certainly want. The bill for federal prosecutors, prisons, the FBI and other Justice Department enforcement runs to almost $9 billion. Treasury also needs $7 billion to collect the taxes, roll over the debt, print the money, run the Secret Service and chase after bootleggers, smugglers and hijackers. Now we're down to $69 billion.
What about the poor? Welfare programs are awfully unpopular; so in a bare-bones budget let's just eliminate cash payments for poor families and their Medicaid benefits too (maybe the states will pick up the slack). But we'll keep the feeding programs -- they're good for farmers and supermarkets too -- though that will cost another $24 billion. Unfortunately, that still leaves an awful lot of very poor old people -- not to mention a growing number of severely disabled or handicapped babies, children and adults, dependent on government for their medical care, nursing homes and subsistence. The bill for these people is high -- $33 billion in Medicaid and $16 billion in cash. But the president has just proclaimed his own "personal crusade" to help the disabled and putting all these infirm folks out on the street next fall could be messy, especially with voters going to the polls and all. So, better pay that bill. Let's see, totalling up -- leaves us $4 billion in the red. Close enough for government work.
But before we forget, there's that S&L bailout you may have read about. The problem won't seem so far away if the federal government stops paying off millions of depositors. You could count on Wall Street to get all bent out of shape about it. And maybe there'd be a run on the banks and then we'd have to bail them out too. Of course we can sue the crooks who ran some of the failed thrifts, and after a year or two in court we might get back as much as $50 million. But OMB says that next year's bail-out bill is going to be upwards of $50 billion. Maybe we'd better raid the Social Security trust funds after all. That will take care of that. So now we've bought all the ways our means can afford.
Of course, that will mean doing without a few frills.
For example, there's your Environmental Protection Agency. It would be out of business. But we're used to smog and dirty water and what with the greenhouse effect, the rising seas will probably wash away the toxic waste dumps. Anyone else set adrift can forget about calling the Coast Guard -- there won't be any. No National Weather Service either -- and if you get hit by a hurricane or other natural disaster, pass the hat.
But here's a bonus: Not only won't there be any environmental regulation, there won't be any regulation -- no minimum wages or worker safety protections or prescription drug testing, or consumer product safety rules or food inspections. That ought to get business humming.
Without any Centers for Disease Control nobody will notice when there is an epidemic so the Public Health Service won't be missed. Ditto the National Institutes of Health -- they've spent billions and people are still dying in droves. Because we've eliminated federal welfare for families, there will be more poor people -- but they literally won't count because there won't be any Census Bureau. And the government won't be spending billions on Head Start and other education programs or for job training either. Ditto housing aid for people of low or moderate means, or development programs for depressed areas. But look at the bright side -- no more HUD scandals.True, there won't be any more interstates built, or even maintained, or subsidies for mass transit and passenger trains. And the airports will close -- though that may be just as well since there won't be any air traffic controllers or inspectors to keep airlines from falsifying safety maintenance records. Also no monuments and museums on the Mall. But the private sector will step into the breach.
No national parks either, but at least no one will be proposing any new fees to get in them. And the loggers will have a heyday in the newly liberated national forests (take note, spotted owl). But the timbermen better hope for wet weather, because there won't be any firefighters from the Forest Service to help them out.
There will still be offshore oil-drilling, since that pays for itself -- and no bothersome interference from programs to protect fisheries or other marine resources. And Congress can forget about the farm bill -- and the administration can get right with GATT -- because there won't be any subsidies for farmers or ranch owners at all. No trips to Mars, or shuttle flights either, but they haven't been working all that well lately anyway. Oh, and no National Endowment for the Arts. That will be a relief for column writers and readers.
But what about all those wonderful-sounding categories in President Bush's January budget: "Expanding the Human Frontier," "Ending the Scourge of Drugs," "Investing in Human Capital," "Bringing HOPE to Distressed Communities" and "Supporting the Heritage." Maybe we can get a loan from the Germans.
So there you have it: the federal budget that most Republican congressmen would choose for the country. And they can take comfort in the fact that a solid majority of people tell pollsters they want the same deal too -- no new taxes and a balanced budget. Perhaps the voters haven't yet studied the fine print in the contract. But the GOP candidates can provide the specifics in their fall campaigns. Or perhaps their opponents will.
Jodie Allen is editor of Outlook.