Web tracks budget bloat

Before reading the 2 384 pages that make up the fiscal 1998 Budget of the United States which President Clinton submitted to Congress this month drop in at the Bureau of the Public Debt home page (www.publicdebt.treas.gov) to put everything in perspective.

The debt-minders at Treasury have a to-the-penny debt counter on their Web site that records daily how much we're in hock as a nation. The bad news is that as of Feb. 7 we collectively owed $5.302 trillion. The good news is that the debt is decreasing the day before we owed $5.307 trillion and at the end of January the total was $5.314 trillion.

For details on how much Clinton wants to spend this year you can either traipse down to the Government Printing Office or the local federal bookstore to pick up a hernia-inducing pile of paper or you can relax and surf your way to GPO's World Wide Web site (www.access.gpo.gov).

But before clicking the download button on your Web browser you might need to decide whether you really want the whole 11-pound five-volume set weighing down your hard drive - especially if you choose to receive the budget in Adobe Systems Inc.'s megabyte-absorbing Adobe Acrobat PDF Writer. GPO has stored all the 1998 budget documents in a separate section of its Web site (www.access.gpo.gov/omb/omb003.html) which offers the user a number of options.

This includes downloading the whole budget in either ASCII text or Adobe format. You also can click on each section of the document choosing the "Historical Tables" book the "Appendix" book or other budget documents. Beware however downloading the Appendix the largest portion of the budget. This volume will yield agency-by-agency details that take up 1 214 pages in the printed version.

Probably the best way to use GPO's site is to employ its powerful Wide-Area Information Service search tool to hunt down only those sections you may want. Here is where the power of the computer really does justice to the budget. It is much easier to use GPO's site to search for terms such as "information technology" and "computer" than it is to thumb through the Appendix. You'll find the budget search field below the index of documents.

Want to compare this year's budget to last year's but have already donated the fiscal 1997 budget to the Pentagon's recycling drive? Don't worry. Just jump over to the Office of Management and Budget's Web site which offers it and the 1996 budget in PDF (www.doc.gov/BudgetFY97/index.html). This site slices and dices previous budgets in ways to satisfy even the most hard-core wonk.

A trip through the budget would not be complete without a stop at the Congressional Budget Office known (depending on one's perspective) for either raining on the budget parade or shining the light of reality on the budget process. You can tap into CBO budget documents at gopher.cbo.gov:7100.

Want to see how William S. Cohen the new Defense secretary explained a Pentagon budget in which he had little input? You can tap into his budget briefing for the press on DefenseLink (www.dtic.mil/defenselink/news/Feb97/t020697_t0206bud.html).

Finally if you like your budget processed by the media rather than in its "raw" format check out the "PoliticsNow" Web site (pn1.politicsnow.com/briefing/budget/).

The site - a joint effort of ABC News National Journal the Washington Post the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek magazine - offers solid reporting on the overall budget and separate agency budgets. The budget "Headlines" section on this site offers succinct reports on Defense environmental health legislative and American Indian budgets.

PoliticsNow also provides a wealth of budget-related links ranging from GPO's site to the Bureau of the Public Debt to organizations offering analysis including both liberal and conservative think tanks.

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