February 23, 1999
By Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
The American people frequently criticize politicians for being
out of step with the rest of the country. They're right. For proof,
consider the current talk in Washington about a "budget
It's an innocent-sounding phrase, but it obscures an important
truth: What Washington has is an excess of our tax money. Under
truth-in-labeling laws, our representatives should be required to
call the extra money a "tax surplus." By calling it a "budget
surplus," they make it sound as if they just kicked over a rock and
there it was.
The fact that we have a surplus means we paid the IRS too much
money. And now, like a teenager pocketing the change from his
parent's $20 bill, the politicians don't want to give it back.
They've got important plans for it. You, on the other hand, would
just waste it on something frivolous, like braces for your kids'
teeth or a new microwave.
In announcing this year's $76 billion surplus, President Clinton
said, "Like any family with long-term financial needs and a little
more earnings than we expected, we can't go out and spend the
surplus today. We have to save for the future." Who is he kidding?
Governments don't save money, they spend it. Those who think
politicians will stash our extra tax dollars in a savings account
or a safe-deposit box don't understand how reckless Washington is.
As political humorist P.J. O'Rourke once put it, "Giving money and
power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage
Of course, when the president lectures us about not "spending"
the surplus, he really means he opposes refunding your tax
overpayments. But this hardly qualifies as spending. If I overpay
for a service-say, dry cleaning-and the proprietor refunds the
extra money, he hasn't "spent" it. He's simply returned what
doesn't belong to him. Giving the surplus back to those who created
it can be called a lot of things-a tax cut, a refund, a rebate-but
it can't be called "spending."
For examples of real spending, look no further than the $1.8
trillion budget President Clinton just submitted to Congress. It
contains increases for dozens of programs, from research on
fuel-efficient cars to efforts to protect "at-risk" species such as
the Pacific salmon. Even more amazing, it actually increases taxes
by $45 billion. How can any politician propose a tax increase in a
year when the government will run a $76 billion surplus?
Now is not the time for Congress to be timid about returning the
surplus to its rightful owners. The accumulated tax surplus over
the next 15 years is expected to total $4.5 trillion. The White
House and Congress have already agreed to set aside 62 percent, or
about $2.8 trillion, for Social Security. But that leaves 38
percent, or $1.7 trillion, for other purposes. How big a tax cut
would that mean over the 15-year life of the surplus? How does
$25,660 for every family of four sound?
In the end, this is an issue of who will spend your money more
wisely: you or the government. President Clinton made clear where
he stands recently when he said of the surplus, "We could give it
back to you and hope you spend it right." But "if you don't spend
it right," government programs could run out of money. That's the
kind of government-knows-best attitude that keeps our taxes at
Come to think of it, that's the same attitude that allows
politicians to call your tax overpayments a "budget surplus."
Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation
a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Taxing Our Patience
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
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