If you won the lottery and suddenly found yourself, say, $100 million richer, you'd likely be amazed and elated. Then you'd turn to figuring what you might reasonably do with the money.
You could say our national government won the lottery this week. President Clinton announced that the rocking economy will pump an additional $1 trillion into federal coffers over the next 15 years. How did Washington react?
"What a nightmare," said one House aide. Yes, you read that right. "Who would have thought it would be a nightmare to have that much money?"
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) offered this thoroughly realistic assessment in light of Congress's recent difficulties with budgets. "A trillion," he said, "provides more money with which to have the same battles."
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) was equally skeptical of the system's ability to deal with the new possibilities created by surplus politics. "Everything's changed," he said, "but our thinking."
Now, it's true that there was also a lot of celebration, especially around the White House. The president crowed, and why not? He presided over the deficit turnaround. The chances are now significantly greater that he'll get what he's asking for in debt reduction, long-term stability for Social Security and Medicare, a prescription drug benefit for seniors, a little more education and child care, perhaps even a version of his universal savings accounts.
Even before the extra trillion turned up, the 15-year surplus had already been projected at $5 trillion. That buys a lot of negotiating room. Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) is certainly right in principle when he says that "what you have are some potential solutions that didn't exist before."
But the skeptics are not being nattering nabobs of negativism. There is good reason to worry that the political system will squander this opportunity. For more than a decade, the country faced both a budget deficit and a social deficit. It's now possible, simultaneously, to create long-term solvency and begin addressing the social deficit -- in education, health care and child poverty -- in a fiscally responsible way.
Miller asks the right question about the new surplus. "What do you think a venture capitalist would do with it?"
First, be a bit cautious. Robert Bixby, policy director of the anti-deficit Concord Coalition, notes that just over half of the projected $6 trillion bonus doesn't materialize until the end of the 15-year period, between 2010 and 2014.
Blowing all that money before it arrives could create problems. That's why Clinton is pushing to take care of long-term obligations in Social Security and Medicare first. Doing that also helps fend off irresponsibly large tax cuts. White House economic adviser Gene Sperling offers this Ben Franklin-like maxim: "First you do what you have to do before you do what you want to do."
Then there's the problem that part of the surplus is based on unrealistically low ceilings, passed in the deficit days, on future domestic discretionary spending. That's the money that goes to programs other than social insurance and defense: for education, public safety, health, roads, parks and the like.
Against the wishes of some of their fellow Republicans, Castle and Boehlert are pushing for what Boehlert calls "realistic adjustments" in the caps on domestic spending to prevent Draconian cuts that are now no longer needed to balance the budget. The Republican leadership won't produce a budget without accommodating that view, which Boehlert says is shared by as many as 40 of his moderate colleagues.
But then what? As Castle says, some tax-cutting is now inevitable. But many of Castle's colleagues are pushing for tax cuts in the range of $700 billion or $800 billion. That would eliminate any chance of addressing social problems in a serious way. The alternative to a big tax cut, as Miller sees it, is not a series of small spending proposals that would fritter the surplus away, but one or two large initiatives to solve problems almost everyone agrees need solving. "How do you make it an investment instead of ordinary spending?" he asks.
Miller is partial to a national effort to improve teaching through much tougher standards and better pay, and also to health coverage for the 44 million uninsured. Vice President Gore is pushing for universal preschool and after-school programs.
The new budget math should open the possibility of considering such ideas, but Miller isn't betting the surplus on it. "George Bush said we had more will than wallet," he recalled, referring to the former president. "Now we have more wallet than will."