Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Lurching Ahead

James Skillen


August 4, 1997

Republicans and Democrats are dancing in celebration over the huge budget deal pasted together by Congress and the White House last week, then swiftly adopted by big majorities in the House and Senate and sent to President Clinton for a quick signature. They claim it is a historic tax and spending package that proves Washington can hear the voice of the people and turn from bickering to action.

In fact, there is less here than the hoopla suggests. But also more. One of the most striking things is how the critics of the deal blast it and how its supporters praise it.

It is true that both parties are rejoicing over the deal, but they are holding separate victory dances. Republicans laud the large and diverse tax cuts. Democrats hail new and expanded programs. Agreement was possible not because the two sides converged on the direction of government policy but because the rapidly declining federal deficit and the roaring American economic engine allowed their opposing agendas to be stitched together.

Meanwhile, the deal's liberal critics harp that the rich will reap too much and the poor too little, as if the immediate economic impact of government is the sole measure of good public policy. Conservative critics denounce the deal because it doesn't chop enough programs, as if making government smaller is the only criterion for public justice.

The agreement doesn't so much prove that our political leaders can make real progress if they try hard enough as confirm how hard it is for Washington to advance, despite much hard effort. The deal makes some changes in Medicare, for instance, but avoids the crucial challenge of real entitlement reform. The child tax credit and the capital gains changes scale back inappropriate tax burdens, but the price is even greater tax-code complexity. The negotiations did not yield a set of clear and sober principles for progress but rather a Christmas tree of benefits for this interest and that.

Still, there is some cause for praise. Ever since last summer's passage of federal welfare reform, the parties have been locked in combat, with liberals trying to blast the reform apart in the name of redressing glaring injustices and conservatives refusing to contemplate any changes for fear that undoing admitted mistakes would unravel the whole reform. Despite this battle, the budget deal includes positive changes for legal immigrants and the Food Stamp program while preserving the overall framework of the 1996 reform (sadly, compassionate workfare changes were also made that will be harmful in practice). Similarly, the new kids health care program represents a national response to a widely recognized problem, but without creating a federal bureaucratic behemoth.

Here is fresh wrestling with real problems and a sober re-assessment of the federal government's role, even if most Republicans and Democrats accepted the provisions grudgingly. And despite the fiddling with numbers and the miniscule size of the net tax cut compared to federal spending, we can be heartened that a Democratic White House and Republican Congress, and huge majorities in both parties, agreed to confine their tax-cut and program-expansion dreams within a disciplined budget.

But we're still a long way from breaking out of the less-versus-more box of public policy discourse. We have a long way to go before adequately coming to grips with the right relations between government, social institutions, and individuals. It's not yet time to break out the champagne. But let's hoist a ginger ale.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior Fellow
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”