Smoke and mirrors

As I warned you in a previous column, federal employee and retiree benefits are likely targets for cuts as the Bush administration works to contain the deficit it has created.

The House recently passed a $2.2 trillion budget plan for fiscal 2004 that embraces the president's entire $726 billion tax-cut package. The bill requires significant cuts in federal spending to accommodate the Bush trickle-down program that would accelerate tax cuts for the superrich and permanently eliminate the estate tax, even for those with estates worth billions of dollars.

Although there is stiff opposition in the Senate to some of the Bush tax cuts — such as eliminating taxes on corporate dividends, another giveaway to the wealthy — a good chunk of the Bush tax proposal is likely to pass both houses, necessitating offsetting savings elsewhere, such as — you guessed it — fed and retiree pay and benefits.

House GOP leaders made a so-called deal — I think "steal" is a better word — with Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who would be required to slice some $39 billion from programs under his jurisdiction to help pay for the Bush cuts. Davis said he was able to get an agreement that would "broaden the definition" of what would be allowed to count toward his total cuts — namely, savings from federal procurement reforms and those achieved through agency reorganization.

Davis told Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) that retirement benefits would not be touched. Instead, he would improve the efficiency of federal operations, including introducing legislation that achieves savings in discretionary programs.

"Our committee has a clear plan for reducing waste, fraud and mismanagement in the federal government — a plan that will result in huge savings year in and year out," Davis said.

Now, just how much waste and fraud is still left in government operations? Successive administrations have all promised to eliminate government fraud, waste and abuse. Are we now being told that there is plenty of that still left? Enough to save $39 billion? Give me a break!

Anyone familiar with the federal budget process knows this is a smoke-and-mirrors arrangement that will not survive serious scrutiny. Even if it were allowed to proceed, it would be a sham arrangement, one that would not reduce the deficit; indeed, it would probably increase it. Another possible outcome of "procurement reforms" and "reorganization" is more outsourcing, resulting in the loss of federal jobs.

Can feds count on their pay and benefits being protected by Davis and his Senate counterpart when the cost of the war in Iraq has not even been calculated and brought to bear on the situation? Well, I sure hope so. But I also hope I will live forever.

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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