Congress is playing charades with the American people, and the way the game has been rigged guarantees even greater public distrust of government.
The tax cut bill passed in varying forms by the House and Senate purports to promise a $792 billion reduction in federal levies over the next 10 years. Almost every radio, television and print story has warned the public that President Clinton intends to veto it when the final version reaches the White House. But that is just part of the story.
Republicans say the tax cut is possible because of a forecast that revenues coming into Washington over the next decade will exceed projected spending by a staggering $3 trillion. "Nobody disputes that," said Sen. Phil Gramm, the Texas Republican. "With the projected surplus of $3 trillion, giving about one-fourth of it in tax cuts hardly seems extreme."
But, as Sen. Gramm conceded in the next breath, $2 trillion of that $3 trillion projected surplus comes from Social Security, as today's workers pour in more payroll taxes than their parents take out in benefits. But that money, by bipartisan agreement, is going to be held in reserve to shore up Social Security for the inevitable day when the baby boomers retire and benefits greatly exceed payroll taxes.
So the projected surplus available for other purposes is really $1 trillion, not $3 trillion. And note the word "projected." The trillion dollars is not cash in hand. It is an educated guess at the excess revenues that may be generated if this wonder of an economy, now nearing a record for sustained growth, keeps on expanding without pause for another 10 years.
Sen. Gramm is no prophet, as one of his colleagues, Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, was unkind enough to point out in the debate last week. In 1993, when Gramm and every other Republican in the Senate and House voted against President Clinton's budget because it raised taxes on the most affluent Americans, Gramm warned, "We are buying a one-way ticket to recession."
And earlier, before he switched parties and moved from the House to the Senate, Gramm was key in passing the first Ronald Reagan budget, the one that cut taxes across the board, raised defense spending and left us with more than a decade of record-busting budget deficits.
An outfit with a track record like that would make any buyer beware. But you don't have to rely just on history to distrust the Republican claim that a tax cut of this scale is good medicine. All you have to do is look at what else is happening right now in the Republican Congress.
The "projected" budget surplus that is supposed to pay for these tax cuts rests on the assumption that the spending caps agreed to by Clinton and Congress in the 1997 budget deal will remain in effect for the next 10 years.
But with few politicians ready to propose savings in Social Security and Medicare, and both parties in agreement that Pentagon spending needs to go up, holding to the caps will require a 38 percent reduction in real-dollar spending for all other domestic programs.
Those reductions, by the estimate of Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, would total $775 billion over the next 10 years. If he is correct, the tax cut -- two-thirds of which would go to people in the top income-tax bracket -- would in effect be paid for by reductions in domestic programs from the Border Patrol and the FBI to Head Start and the National Institutes of Health, programs that benefit all Americans.
But the Republicans won't vote for even the modest installment of cuts needed to keep appropriations for next year under the caps. Instead, they are playing games with the budget by classifying spending that busts the caps as "emergency appropriations," which are exempt from those agreed-upon overall limits.
Some emergencies are real -- the farm crisis, for example, or the Kosovo rebuilding effort. But the Republicans are calling the cost of the 2000 Census an "emergency," despite the fact that the Constitution requires a Census every 10 years and this one has been in the planning stage ever since 1990.
It's a charade. Every dollar of "emergency" spending comes right out of those "projected" surpluses the Republicans claim will be used to pay for their tax cut. David Rogers of the Wall Street Journal, who knows the appropriations process as well as any reporter on Capitol Hill, properly labeled it for what it is: "keeping a double set of books." The rest of the press needs to be as blunt and put an end to this pretense.