THE FIRST STAGE of the administration's budget-cutting plan calls for about $35 billion in savings next year from fundamental and permanent changes in the federal domestic programs. That is what the House and Senate will be voting on when the reconciliation bills come to the floor.
One measure of the sweep of the potential change is OMB Director David Stockman's assertion that the administration's original budget plan announced in mid-February embodied over 1,000 major policy decisions. We did some calculating and concluded that, if all those decisions were reviewed by a policy staff working six days a week for the four weeks between the inauguration and the package's completion, and if the staff took only a minimal amount of time for meals, sleep and answering calls of higher authority, family and nature, the average time for each decision would have been 12 minutes. "Every 12 minutes," the stentorian voice of the commercial could have warned -- as with car accidents, crimes and other misfortunes -- "a policy is being changed."
We don't pretend to have spent even that long reviewing each of these judgment calls, but we'll offer a few examples of how much may be involved beyond the often relatively small dollar savings expected:
How mujch control should the federal government have over the billions of dollars it gives states and localities for education, health, social services and community development? Not much, says the administration. It proposals not only would eliminate a lot of small, narrow-purpose programs and the associated red tape, but would also give states much latitude in allocating money among groups and localities and trust them not to substitute federal money for funds of their own they would otherwise spend.
Should welfare recipients be given financial incentives to work or, instead, be required to work off their welfare grants in ad hoc public jobs?The administration would end most financial aid to recipients who take low-paid private sector jobs, thereby saving about $325 million (that is, if the recipients still decide to keep their jobs; if they don't, the plan will cost money).
Should the payment of Social Security minimum benefits to about 2 million people, many of them very old, be stopped? The administration says yes, because a small percentage also receive federal pensions and those who are very poor can go on welfare.
Should special job and training programs be continued for low-income youths who now face disastrously high rates of unemployment, particularly in inner cities? No, says the administration, they can be handled by what is to be left of adult-training programs or by the private sector.
These and many other policies have now, presumably, been reviewed by the authorizing committees of the House and Senate. Many have been modified, sometimes in subtle ways, and others have been added to the list. With all the haste and confusion, it will probably be years before the full effects of the final decisions are known. Remember, however, that as the budget reconciliation process goes forward, much more than money is at stake.