The administration has revealed its "freeze-plus" budget plan to congressional leaders. Reaction from both parties has been -- how shall we put it? -- well, restrained. In the words of one Senate aide, "At least they came up with something."
There is widespread agreement on both sides of Capitol Hill that action against the budget deficit is urgently needed. So members, even many Democratic members, are reluctant to dismiss the White House proposals out of hand. It's a plan, however, the virtues of which are difficult to discern.
The accent in the administration's plan is on the "plus" rather than on the "freeze." True, some domestic programs are frozen at current nominal levels. But others -- notably Social Security -- are allowed to grow with inflation and caseloads. Military spending would continue to accelerate. And some programs would disappear altogether. The result is a pattern of spending that would be hard to justify.
How, for example, could anyone support the administration's idea of denying cost-of-living adjustments to the poorest elderly and disabled people in the country while granting them to middle-and upper-income Social Security beneficiaries? And who could conceive of cutting nutrition aid to needy pregnant women and newborn babies while so many are already denied help?
Is it thinkable that Congress would disband the Legal Services program, which only last year proved so useful in defending thousands of disabled people against the administration's attempts to cut off their means of support? And who could feel comfortable about another assault on welfare aid to mothers and children -- which has lagged far behind inflation for the past decade -- while the Pentagon has so much money waiting to be spent that it can't unload it fast enough?
Would it really save money in the long run to eliminate the tiny program that helps welfare mothers find jobs? Or to further reduce other training programs -- and close down the Jobs Corps -- which combat disastrously high unemployment among disadvantaged youths? Does it help the country's future to abandon investment in mass transit, urban redevelopment, sewage control and soil and energy conservation?
Yes, some of OMB's ideas are good. Farm supports and health care for veterans do need reform. Subsidies for rural electricity and irrigation projects and for users of other federal facilities should be cut. So should small-business subsidies. But these savings, important as they are, would barely dent the deficit. Even the administration's full plan, for all the hardship it would impose, would reduce next year's $214 billion deficit by only $34 billion -- not much progress.
The "freeze-plus" plan is likely to end up in cold storage -- right alongside the administration'sudgets for the past three years. Perhaps, as the Senate aide suggests, it is encouraging to know that there is concern about the budget in the White House. But it looks increasingly as if Congress, once again, will be called upon to do the job.