If the Bush budget for 1992 were being judged as a swan dive is judged, this observer would hold up a card reading 7.9. Not bad, not good.
The trouble is that many of the attractive elements are not likely to survive the heat of budget hearings. All of the regrettable proposals will come through just fine. Once again, we have a budget meant for Mrs. Sprat. It oozes fat from every page. Once again it is borrow and borrow, spend and spend.By way of example, the president proposes to hand the nation's governors a menu of $22 billion in ongoing federal programs. From this menu, the governors could choose $15 billion in transfers. Among the tempting dishes are such items as $9.6 billion in welfare and social services, $6.9 billion for housing and community development, $2.2 billion in environmental programs and $1.8 billion for education.
In a meeting on Monday with the governors, Bush remarked that some people might call the plan "warmed-over federalism." The governors could well respond that warmed-over federalism is better than no federalism at all. Under this proposition, the states would have the pleasure of spending money without the pain of raising it, and they would have more flexibility than they have now. The plan is soundly based in our basic political philosophy. It ought to pass.
But will it pass? Don't hold your breath. The federal bureaucracy will fight such transfers every step of the way. Many members of Congress are more wedded to uniformity than to diversity. For many years the states could fairly be criticized for general ineptitude, and that reputation - no longer deserved - lingers on.
Consider another attractive proposal. The Bush budget would require an estimated 500,000 elderly persons on Medicare to pay more for their insurance. These are single persons with incomes above $125,000 and couples with incomes above $150,000. They would pay $63.60 per month instead of $31.80 a month, or $381.60 more a year.
Such a burden plainly is not a scheme to soak the rich. It barely sprinkles the rich. Health-care costs are soaring out of sight. Someone has to pay more of the expense, and it is only fair to hit the relatively wealthy before we hit the relatively poor. The bill should pass.
But will it pass? Maybe a higher premium for well-to-do beneficiaries will pass in some form, but the old folks' lobby will be out in force, whining and mewling about the hardness of life. Members of Congress have a vivid memory of what happened a few years ago with insurance against catastrophic illness. Faced with wholesale rebellion, members fled to the hills, and the program was swiftly repealed. But Bush's proposal will be hard for Democrats to oppose, and it has a reasonable chance.
The budget would apply the same principle in other areas, and these also merit applause. It is absurd, for example, to subsidize school lunches for the children of families in the $50,000 range. Bush would halt crop support payments for farmers with non-farm incomes above $125,000 - and why not? Federal scholarship programs would be slightly retooled in order to make more money available to the poor and proportionately less to the rich. Nothing wrong with that.
So much for the attractive elements. The principal flaw in Bush's $1.4 trillion swan dive is that it makes no serious attempt, none at all, to curb federal spending. Like Oliver Twist, the president asks for more, more, more. Is it absolutely necessary to build that supercollider in Texas? Is it vital, positively vital, to raise the budget for space exploration? When the country faces a record deficit of $318 billion, must we spend $42 billion on military research? Would $40 billion suffice? Great chunks of this budget could be put off to a better day.
Adopting a federal budget is mostly a matter of attitude, and the prevailing attitude in Congress is mostly bad. In every area of expenditure, the policy is to put it on the credit card. If the typical family were as irresponsible, the typical family would be busted.