REPUBLICANS MAY shortly be asked to vote for another in a series of mindless budget proposals whose principal purpose is to save their leaders from embarrassment. To keep up the pretense that they are not using the Social Security surplus to finance other government programs, House leaders are toying with the notion of cutting the rest of the budget across the board. Members could go home having voted at one remove to cut funding for Head Start, defense, veterans' benefits, law enforcement and the parks--but for what?
Not to save the Social Security surplus, surely. Congress already has spent, by any realistic accounting, billions of dollars of the current Social Security surplus, and is on course to spend billions more--by fiscal year's end, most likely more than a fifth of the roughly $150 billion total. The spending has been obscured by accounting gimmicks--calling it an emergency, which means it doesn't count except in the real world, or deferring it until next fiscal year, which simply means tapping that year's Social Security surplus instead of this year's.
Nor does the spending of the money on other programs do any harm to Social Security. It is not the raid that anticipatory Republican ads already are describing. The practice has been condoned by both parties for years. Indeed, by law there are only two things a Social Security surplus can be spent on--the current cost of government or the past cost, in the sense of paying down the debt. In either case, the Treasury puts an IOU in the Social Security trust fund, and that program's precarious finances remain the same. It is true, as the president has argued, that in the long run the government will be better able to meet the costs of the baby boomers' retirement if it reduces debt today. The austerity, if that is the right word, will make it easier to borrow later. But the government also has current needs to meet--roads to build, children to help educate, etc. This is an intergenerational fight as well as a fight over discipline.
Earlier this year the president rightly portrayed the Republicans as jeopardizing the government's ability to meet its future obligations, including those to the elderly, by granting a tax cut it couldn't afford. The Republican leaders want to zing him back. That's what the current fight is mainly about. To provide the backdrop for an attenuated charge that probably won't stick--that the Democrats are raiding Social Security--the Republican congressional strategists ask their members to cast votes that do the party remarkably little good. The party's leading presidential candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, said as much last week, and implied it again in a speech the other day. "Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself," he said.
An across-the-board budget cut is an indiscriminate device that, in pursuit of a phony budget goal, would harm some programs that should not be cut, including some that have been cut already. It abdicates the responsibility that it pretends to fulfill. It would indeed put points on the political scoreboard, but not the ones the authors envision.