August 26, 1999

August 26, 1999 | Commentary on Federal Budget

If You Send It, They Will Spend It

The $792 billion tax cut recently passed by both houses of Congress has triggered the usual bout of hand-wringing from President Clinton and other tax-cut foes: The nation can't afford it. It will threaten our ability to "save" Social Security and Medicare. It will thwart debt reduction.

Wrong on all counts.

The charge that the tax cut is too big-Vice President Gore derides it as a "gigantic risky tax scheme"-crumbles under inspection.

The amount by which our taxes will be reduced-$792 billion over 10 years-is less than one-third of the projected $3 trillion budget surplus over the same period. The cut would be phased in gradually, with a measly $5.2 billion in tax relief next year and only $156 billion over the first five years. As Charles Krauthammer writes, "this hardly tears up the tax code."

Without the tax cut, Americans will pay $22.8 trillion in federal taxes over the next decade. With the cut, they will pay "only" $22.2 trillion. Yet opponents would have us believe even this modest reduction is too much.

To help stage-manage this sleight of hand, the president and his allies have continued to make solemn pronouncements about the need to "save" Social Security and Medicare, implying-if not outright declaring-that Congress's "gigantic risky tax scheme" would somehow jeopardize this goal. How so, since two-thirds of the projected surplus would be set aside for Social Security? As for Medicare, it is the White House that has proposed an expensive new prescription-drug benefit that would place the program on even shakier financial ground.

So with $2 trillion in a Social Security "lockbox," lawmakers are deciding the fate of the remaining $1 trillion.

Which brings us to the final question: "whether," in the words of Harvard University Economics Professor Martin Feldstein, "the remaining third should stay with taxpayers themselves or be given over to new government spending and income-redistribution schemes."

Those naïve few who think the government won't spend our tax overpayments should consider this sobering fact: Congress already is preparing to spend nearly all of next year's projected $14 billion surplus. Two "emergency" spending bills alone-$7.4 billion in farm aid and $4.5 billion to fund the Census-would consume almost $12 billion. What will happen when Congress gets around to the "non-emergency" spending, the traditional election-year pork barrel projects used to buy re-election?

Lawmakers can preach debt reduction all they want, but their actions are what count. Congress spent $20 billion of last year's Social Security surplus on dozens of hometown projects, corporate welfare and other redundant and obsolete programs. Lawmakers are expected to go at least $30 billion overboard this year, having earmarked funds for-among other things-plant growth in outer space, improving peanut "efficiency," and grants for manure handling and distribution. Which makes the fate of future surpluses look grim indeed.

In "Field of Dreams," audiences were told: "If you build it, they will come." The lesson from Washington: "If you send it, they will spend it." Somebody will get to use the record-breaking tax overpayments now filling the government's coffers. Why not the people who earned the money in the first place?

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

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