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A frugal GOP? Don't believe it

Republicans say their fight to cut taxes $792-billion over 10 years will be a long stride down the road to heaven, and failure to cut will pave the path to hell because Democrats will spend the projected surpluses promiscuously. But before taking this seriously, take note of "academic earmarks."

The term is arcane and the political class _ especially, just now, its Republican component _ hopes to keep it obscure. An academic earmark is an appropriation Congress awards to a particular institution of higher education, without normal competitive, merit-based reviews. The Chronicle of Higher Education says this "academic pork barrel swelled dramatically this year, reaching the highest dollar total ever," a total of $797-million. This 51 percent increase over the last year's $528-million indicates the reality behind the Republican-controlled Congress' promises of frugality.

An axiom about campus politics _ that the bitterness is inversely proportional to the stakes _ fits today's fracas between the parties about tax cuts. The stakes would be as large as Republicans say, if Republicans meant what they say about their readiness to restrain discretionary domestic spending. They don't.

They say they will adhere to the spending caps in the 1997 budget agreement. Without adherence, the projected surpluses will not materialize.

But adherence would involve a decade of significant real decline in the kind of domestic spending that the Republican-controlled Congress is unwilling to vote. A party that won't kill a superfluity like public broadcasting is going to starve the FBI as the terrorism threat increases?

Besides, this is an age of remarkably proliferating "emergencies." Last year Republicans participated in labeling $21-billion as spending for "emergencies," thereby making it not count against the caps. And they are at it again. The pertinent law defines an "emergency" as something unpredictable and unexpected. Recently Republicans designated "emergency" spending for the constitutionally mandated 2000 census, which has been predictable for 211 years _ since June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire, the decisive ninth state, ratified the Constitution.

Now a $7.4-billion agriculture "emergency" is at hand. Predictably.

Democrats seem to believe this: Government frames society, providing laws, physical infrastructure and human capital (education, particularly) that fuels commerce. Therefore government is responsible for all economic outcomes, and the economy is essentially government property. Therefore a dollar of surplus revenue devoted to a tax cut is a government dollar "spent."

The best reason for Republicans to cut taxes is to reject such thinking, root and branch. But the Democrats' manner of speaking _ the semantics of statism _ is so familiar that its premises pass unnoticed, and Democrats know better than to make them explicit. Instead they say the 10-year, $792-billion tax cut is "reckless," "risky," etc. But if America's almost $9-trillion economy grew not at all during the next 10 years, cumulative GDP in those years would be almost $90-trillion, concerning which $792-billion resembles a rounding error.

A conservative case can be made for not cutting taxes and instead using the surplus to pay down the debt, thereby reducing the government's presence in capital markets and reducing interest rates _ a kind of stimulative tax cut. But Republicans say the political class' itch to spend is too strong. They should know; they are members of that class. (See "earmarks" and "emergencies" above.)

Republicans' desire to define themselves with tax cuts confronts a paradox: Cuts seem least urgent when they are most affordable. When the economy is humming, the sound conservative instinct is to not mess with success. And when the economy is flooding Washington with revenues, it also is filling taxpayers' bank accounts, making tax relief feel less urgent.

Even worse, from the conservatives' point of view, prosperity makes people cheerful, indiscriminately so: The flames of resentment of government flicker low. Today polls record the public's emphatic preference for increased government spending on education, health and defense rather than tax cuts and less emphatically but still decisively for retiring debt rather than cutting taxes. Big government has never been less threatened.

Government growth has slowed since the arrival of the Republican "revolution" in 1995-96, largely because of something Republicans are rightly vowing to reverse _ the decline of defense spending. More than 300 programs have been eliminated, but these were mostly wee things, and the annual savings of about $3-billion about equals the increase since 1995 in the budget (now more than $34-billion) of the Education Department, which Republicans vowed to abolish. Another department Republicans targeted for extinction, Commerce, now has a budget 40 percent higher than in 1995.

Government economic statistics include the category "durable goods," defined as things that last at least three years. Republican goals are not durable goods.

George Will is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group