Budget charade

The House and Senate Budget committees are proceeding to write a fiscal 2004 budget resolution that confronts the realities of a worsening budget situation. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), Senate Budget Committee chairman, expects to bring the budget back into balance within 10 years. We were running a surplus just two years ago. What went wrong?

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan was concerned a few years ago that a budget surplus would result in the demise of the Treasury Department's borrowing, which in turn would impact U.S. capital markets. It now looks as if Greenspan had nothing to fear.

What is worrisome is that the burgeoning federal budget deficit will put pressure on federal pay and benefits. Those are areas Congress typically scrutinizes when looking to cut the budget.

A spokesman for Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), chairman of the House Budget Committee, said that despite Congressional Budget Office estimates and President Bush's budget and tax proposals that would produce a 10-year deficit of $1.8 trillion — or $4.4 trillion if you don't count Social Security revenues — Nussle was planning on submitting a budget "that will show balance" within 10 years.

A private company that developed its operating budget the way Congress handles money would be filing for bankruptcy in no time.

This whole exercise is a charade. None of these estimates considers the cost of the war with Iraq. And who can predict the costs of such a war? A former economic adviser who estimated the cost at $200 billion lost his job for speaking out, but my guess is that his estimate was conservative. And how about the costs of rehabilitating Iraq after the war?

Amid this financial disaster, the Bush administration wants to cut taxes and increase the deficit even more. There once was a time when the Republican Party was the party of fiscal constraint while the Democrats were not terribly concerned about a balanced budget. Times sure have changed. I don't know which party is more fiscally irresponsible.

As I said, all of the spending is going to come from federal employees' pockets. They will receive smaller, or no, pay raises, fewer retirement benefits and steady increases in their health benefits premiums. Feds are convenient targets when Congress seeks to cut costs.

Does this mean that feds should oppose a war with Iraq? Of course not. If Iraq poses a serious threat to our way of life, then we must protect our freedoms. What good is a pay raise if you can't live in a free society?

I am concerned about the lack of fiscal constraints that have suddenly reappeared after we achieved a budget surplus. That seems to have gone with the wind. Some thought President Clinton was a "flake," but the budget was in surplus when he was in office. Now, the executive branch is stacked with God- fearing patriots who keep waving the flag while ignoring the budget deficit. Is that what America needs?

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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