TEXAS GOV. George W. Bush did himself and his party alike a service in denouncing the proposal of the House Republican leadership to create the appearance of lower government spending by stretching out payments to the working poor next year. House Republican whip Tom DeLay, the retrograde notion's principal sponsor, said the party's leading presidential candidate "obviously doesn't understand how Congress works." Perhaps he doesn't, but he clearly understands better than Mr. DeLay the difference between a good idea and a bad one. It was the governor who provided the reality check in this exchange.
The payments are owed under the terms of the earned-income tax credit, a form of negative income tax that serves as a wage supplement to the working poor. The payments are based on annual earnings and tend to be made in lump-sum fashion the following spring in the manner of tax refunds. Mr. DeLay would divide them into monthly increments. The effect would be to delay some of them until after the fiscal year just begun, and make spending in the current year seem less than otherwise. Low-wage workers, most with children, would be making the government the equivalent of interest-free loans to make its books look good.
The tone-deaf defense of the proposal made it worse. "Working people don't need help with their annual budget," Mr. DeLay said at one point. "They need help with their monthly budget." He suggested the stretch-out might even help recipients by saving them from their own improvidence. "Rather than getting one check, and who knows what they do with that one check once a year, they get a monthly income," he explained.
But what is worst about the idea is that, in the end, it serves no real-world governmental purpose. The timing change -- the moving of some of these payments into the next fiscal year -- is a gimmick in the service of a phony budget position whose only purpose is political show. Mr. DeLay himself implicitly acknowledges this even as he asks that the budget position be taken seriously. The poor have to wait for their money, but the budget isn't cut; "they don't lose a dime," he says of the recipients.
The goal is to make it appear that the Republicans are funding the government without tapping the Social Security surplus. In fact, they've already used but obscured through gimmicks about $20 billion of the surplus, and are on course to use at least $10 billion more. Nor by virtue of that is Social Security any the worse off. By law, there are only two things that can be done with a Social Security surplus; it can be used to pay other current expenses or to pay down debt. In either case, the Treasury does the same thing in return for the funds -- puts an IOU in the Social Security trust fund.
The Republicans nonetheless hope that when it turns out that the surplus has been used for other programs, as has happened with the blessing of both parties for years, they can accuse the president and Democrats of having raided Social Security. That's what all the maneuvering is about -- and that's all it's about. Mr. DeLay and company ask the party to take the impolitic (save to them) step of squeezing the working poor in order, perhaps, to score a cheap political point off the president having to do with Social Security. That's the gantlet Mr. Bush would rather the party not run. Hard to blame him.