President Bush unveiled his 1992 budget this week, a $1.45 trillion monster awash in red ink while not even including two of the biggest items: full costs of the Persian Gulf war and bailing out depositors in failing financial institutions. Any hopes that the administration and Congress might confront the huge budget deficit - this year or any other - appear to be dead and buried.
In his budget message, the president said the budget was "consistent with the five-year deficit reduction law enacted last fall." How budgets can be consistent with so-called deficit reduction laws and still run up the biggest deficits in history was not explained.The kind of budget where up is down and smaller is bigger is symptomatic of the unreality of federal budgetmaking. It is a process where politics take precedence over mere numbers and thus where 2 + 2\ 3 is passed off as somehow being real arithmetic.
As one economist put it, there is a "demonstrated willingness" by public officials "to misrepresent the true deficit picture." In simpler words, they don't tell the truth.
Bush's plan calls for only a 2.6 percent increase in spending over the current budget, which will finish the fiscal year next Oct. 1 with an estimated record-breaking $318 billion shortfall. That 2.6 percent is less than inflation, yet the 1992 budget ends up with a projected $295 billion deficit.
Even those staggering figures may be wildly inaccurate since the cost of the Persian Gulf war will be presented to Congress later in a "supplemental" off-budget item. Nobody knows how much that will be. And the S&L bailout is largely "off-budget," as well. That phrase means the money is being spent but not counted among expenses - a neat political trick that has nothing to do with reality.
To be fair, there isn't a lot of room to cut. Things like Social Security, rescuing depositors and paying the $200 billion interest on the national debt are mandatory. But budget makers should stop pretending that the financial picture is under control and getting better when it actually is getting worse.
In an effort to make some reductions, the Bush budget will cut $15 billion from Medicare over five years. But it would make more sense to give one-year figures instead of lumping five-years' worth together to make it seem like more. The budget also contains - despite the gulf war - an earlier planned 25 percent reduction in military personnel, as well as other cuts that could hurt Utah-based programs.
While the budget is full of problems, including the usual too-optimistic revenue estimates, don't expect Congress to improve the product. Experience has shown that by the time senators and representatives get through playing with the package, it contains even more flaws, failings and expenses.
Watching federal budgetmaking in action is an exercise in despair. Nothing ever seems to improve. The payment already is a weight dragging down America's hopes and ability to act. And will be a crushing burden to its children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren - if the entire economy does not collapse first.