1. Archive

Campaign lacks realism on surplus

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Thirty-one years after his death, that formidable legislator and frustrated Shakespearean actor, Everett McKinley Dirksen, has received the recognition he is due. The senator from Illinois is the subject of a splendid new political biography, Everett Dirksen and His Presidents, written by University of Virginia historian Byron C. Hulsey and published by the University Press of Kansas.

In addition to reminding us of the many roles played by one of the most vivid personalities to grace the Senate stage in the decades following World War II, the Dirksen biography offers a pertinent comment on an underlying issue in the current presidential campaign.

There were few constants in Dirksen's career, which saw him at various times voicing both isolationist and internationalist sentiments, opposing and supporting civil rights laws, acting as a supporter of Robert Taft and later becoming a vital ally of Lyndon Johnson. But, like his constituents, Dirksen was almost always skeptical of the way Washington dealt with spending priorities, its disdain for budgetary restraint.

Perhaps his most enduring jibe at the recklessness of the capital's fiscal policy was his line: "A billion here, a billion there. Pretty soon it adds up to real money."

We need a Dirksen to inject some common sense into the current debate between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush about what to do with the projected budget surplus. Actually, we have some smart people doing that _ and their message is a healthy antidote to the rhetoric we're hearing from both the Democratic and Republican nominees.

Bush and Gore don't agree on much, but both of them have latched onto the Congressional Budget Office estimate that the non-Social Security surplus will total almost $2.2-trillion over the next 10 years. It is that glowing pot of gold that permits them to talk of big tax cuts and boosts in both defense and domestic spending during the time they hope to be in office.

But is that realistic? Both the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the business-financed Committee for Economic Development are waving caution flags in recently released reports.

The business organization says it "opposes permanently committing the non-Social Security surplus to spending increases or tax reductions." It points out that "within a few years, the aging of the population will push the budget towards large and growing deficits," with costs of Social Security and Medicare rising dramatically, while labor force growth "will virtually cease."

It also casts doubts on the realism of the projected surplus figures _ a point that is well-documented in the CBPP document. The liberal group identifies four major factors that are likely to cut the actual surplus by as much as two-thirds.

"First, there is overwhelming bipartisan consensus . . . that the annual surpluses" now found in Medicare trust funds should be set aside for future Medicare needs. "This reduces the surplus available for tax and program initiatives by $360-billion."

Second, the budget projections assume that "an array of highly popular tax credits" and subsidy programs, such as farm price supports, whose authorizations expire some time in the near future will be allowed to die. They won't, and that takes another $230-billion off the projected surplus.

Third, at least $500-billion of the funds will likely be needed to shore up Social Security and Medicare, "since few, if any, policymakers in either party will countenance closing the long-term financing gaps in these programs entirely through benefit cuts or payroll tax increases."

Finally, the $2.2-trillion surplus projection assumes that spending on domestic discretionary programs _ all the things Congress finances annually _ will actually be cut over the next 10 years when measured in real dollars, adjusted for higher population and prices. That won't happen either. "Simply assuming that expenditures for discretionary programs remain at their current level per person in inflation-adjusted terms . . . reduces the available surplus by nearly another $400-billion."

Add it up, and you are left with a projected surplus of about $700-billion _ one-third of the amount that Gore and Bush have plugged into their budget models.

True, no one can predict with confidence the behavior of the American economy over a period as long as 10 years. But prudence would dictate caution in promising either tax cuts or new spending programs. Voters have had more than enough of politicians who are unable to keep their word. They might even be ready to reward one who says he is inclined to hold back until he sees that the promised surpluses are really there.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group