"We have to cut yesterday's government to help solve tomorrow's problems."
-- President Clinton, State of the Union Address, January 24, 1995.
President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore continue to speak out, as they have for several years, about the need to "reinvent" the federal government and rein in the budget deficit. The vice president, to his credit, has issued more than two dozen reports through the National Performance Review, outlining many inefficiencies and excesses of big government.
Yet, now that Congress is trying to deliver the very "change" Clinton and Gore promised as candidates in 1992, the administration is balking. The president has threatened to veto 11 of the 13 appropriations bills now making their way through Congress, calling them too extreme.
In fact, these appropriations bills are very modest: reducing the size of wasteful federal programs on average by just 10 percent. The appropriations bill for the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, for example, would cut spending by a mere 4.5 percent on these programs from their 1995 levels. The $1.1 billion saved amounts to less than .08 percent of the entire federal budget. But even this is apparently too radical.
Despite his veto threats, the president insists he favors a balanced budget. He says he thinks the Republicans are going too far, too fast, and have their priorities mixed up.
Unfortunately, it is hard to take the president seriously. His own budget, released in February, showed the deficit increasing to $250 billion per year by the year 2000, and even more after that, according to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) calculations.
Then, struck by the political mood of the country, the administration had second thoughts and issued a new budget in June. The president's new proposal was supposed to balance the budget by the year 2005. But CBO read the numbers differently. It estimates the new White House budget would result in a deficit of more than $200 billion in the year 2005, actually an increase of some $13 billion over the current year's deficit.
If the president is serious about reinventing government and balancing the budget, he can show it by supporting several proposals as put forth in the various appropriations bills.
For example, President Clinton has threatened to veto the Commerce, Justice, and State appropriations bill, largely because it would eliminate the Advanced Technology Program (ATP). In his own budget, the president proposed increasing funding for this program by 622 percent! Yet, judging by downsizing and streamlining standards spelled out by administration officials, ATP is exactly the type of program the president should be against.
Administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology within the Department of Commerce, ATP is the most egregious example of what Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has termed "corporate welfare." The program directly subsidizes businesses involved in high technology research and development; thus placing the burden of these risky ventures on the shoulders of taxpayers, rather than on the private companies that stand to benefit from successful efforts. The program should be killed, not expanded.
President Clinton has threatened to veto the appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education because it would eliminate the AmeriCorps program. This program is one of the president's favorites -- created in 1993 as a model program that would help "volunteer" students serve local U.S. communities. Unfortunately, these volunteers are anything but free help. A recent General Accounting Office study found the program costs more than $26,700 per "volunteer" per year, $7,900 more than the administration originally estimated. Ironically, while the president speaks publicly of making government work better at lower cost, he is adamant about protecting AmeriCorps -- even though 18 students could be supported through the Pell Grant program for the same cost as one AmeriCorps "volunteer."
President Clinton has threatened to veto the Transportation appropriation bill because it would limit urban mass transit grants. Yet, the mass transit program is one of the most ineffective in all of government; it is a boondoggle, pure and simple.
Over the past 25 years, more than $90 billion, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has been spent subsidizing local mass transit projects in an effort to promote public transportation. At the same time, mass transit's share of commuter travel has declined in nearly every city since the federal subsidies were initiated, down from 9 percent nationwide in 1970 to 5 percent in 1990.
Do the math, Mr. President: Why are we building these systems if Americans don't use them? Federal subsidies, moreover, have encouraged many cities to build systems they cannot afford, leaving them heavily in debt. Yet, instead of supporting Congress's efforts to return money and authority to localities, the president would increase funding for mass transit grants.
President Clinton was right about "cutting yesterday's government." That's exactly what Congress is trying to do. So, why is President Clinton standing in the way of reform?
Note: John S. Barry is a former economics research assistant at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.