The atomizing of the government goes on. The House Public Works Committee now proposes to take the highway and airport and airways trust funds out of the budget. That is the same thing Congress voted to do two years ago with the much larger Social Security trust fund. The purpose is to protect the highway and airport and airway programs from budget cuts; if they aren't part of the target, what would be the point of shooting at them? A secondary purpose is to protect the turf of the Public Works Committee against incursions by the Budget and Appropriations panels. It is the wrong way to govern, a mischievous proposal that would delude the public while giving further special status to interest groups whose clout is already deservedly the stuff of legend. The House is scheduled to take up the idea today, and should junk it for all time.
Those arguing in favor of splitting off the funds point out that they are already separated from the rest of the budget by law, that they are special-purpose recycling mechanisms that work off what amount to glorified users' fees. The users pay taxes in, get benefits out. The taxes can only go in the designated funds (the gasoline tax into the highway fund, for example); the funds can only be used for the designated programs. The backers say that these special arrangements in which the government is really just running special bank accounts for interest groups should not be subject to general fiscal concerns or subordinated to fiscal constraints. They make the further point that in most years the lumping together of the trust and general funds masks the "true" federal deficit, in that the trust funds tend to run at a surplus. The deficit in the general fund is greater than the deficit of the general and trust funds combined.
But this is an accountant's game; it is a programmatic rather than economic argument -- and the deficit is an economic phenomenon. The excess of all government spending over all collections has important implications for unemployment and inflation, monetary policy, interest rates, the value of the dollar, the trade deficit. It is not a figure to be fooled with. Nor should any part of the government, because of its accounting history, be exempt from the effort to bring the deficit down. The problem throughout the Reagan administration has been that, for political reasons, too many parts of the budget have been exempt. The rest have not been able to bear the burden. The transportation trust funds proposal would only compound this problem.
The present unified budget, in which all funds are combined, was adopted in the Johnson administration. (President Johnson liked the idea because the surplus in the Social Security funds made the general fund deficit look smaller.) The Reagan administration has tried to move further in this direction by rounding up stray programs and putting them back "on budget" rather than the other way around. It opposes what Public Works would do. In the end it's a pretty simple matter. These are not duchies. We have only one government.