- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

Last week, senior White House staffers were busy briefing education trade associations on the White House budget strategy for this election year. There are to be no dollar limits on education spending. The cash register is full. With continued increases in federal surpluses, the education trade associations were urged to launch new efforts to fund education through more federal involvement. This is just an early crest of the wave of the future: balanced budget liberalism. The Republican Party is already in budget and policy retreat. With the extra trillion dollars in 10 year surplus projections announced yesterday, the retreat may turn into a rout.Until the 1998 congressional election debacle, congressional Republicans stoutly argued for restraint in spending growth for most programs, including education and health care. They paid a price at the polls. By 59 percent to 24 percent the public trusted the Democrats over Republicans on Medicare. By 55 percent to 25 percent, the Democrats won the education confidence test.So, starting in 1999, the Republicans matched the Democrats dollar for dollar on these popular programs (reserving their differences for policy issues.) And how wonderfully it all has worked. After a year and a half of Republicans advocating the same level of spending, the Democratic level of support on Medicare has plunged from 59 percent to 46 percent; on education the Democratic support level has dropped from 55 percent to 44 percent. Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan used to quip that he didn't worry about the federal deficit because it was big enough to take care of itself. Back then, I took that as Mr. Reagan at his most puckish.But, as the current political landscape begins to take shape without a deficit, I am inclined to impute Delphic insights to the grand old man. The deficit not only protected itself for 30 years, but it stood as sentinel against the corrupting intrusion of liberal largesse. As we enter our first budget surplus election cycle, the waves of balanced budget liberalism are crashing hard on conservative safe harbors.
Consider the conservative conundrum. Assume that the unparalleled productivity of the American economy continues, or even quickens (after all, with the exception of a few months in 1991 after the Persian Gulf war spiked oil prices, we are in the 17th consecutive year of the Reagan economic recovery.) Assume in a few years we can lower taxes across the board and still have trillions of corporate and high-end individual tax revenue surpluses left over. If the liberals then propose endless new spending programs, what persuasive conservative argument can be raised against such spending? Is it possible that the economic productivity of the Information Age will make possible a cradle to grave welfare state that the Industrial Age of the last century couldn't afford?
With the deficit removed, the conservative argument is reduced to its core: We oppose cradle to grave welfare not because we can't financially afford it, but because men and women are meant to be productive, because material challenge bolsters moral development, because such unearned Babylonian wealth corrupts the soul. I'm not sure how many votes that stern moral argument is likely to garner. How much easier it will be to play the game.
I think I will have a go at balanced budget liberalism. In May we were told that the budget offices have found an additional $40 billion annual surplus. I propose to spend it thusly:
Give every child born in the United States (about 3 million a year) a check for $10,000, to be invested and held until retirement. At 8 percent return, interest compounded quarterly, after 65 years, that $10,000 will yield $1,722,045.64. Bingo! Every retiree a multimillionaire. And that's for a mere $30 billion a year. We've got trillions.
Of course, with the federal dollars there will inevitably be a few strings attached. For example, Al Gore's education proposal promises billions of dollars to increase teacher pay. As last Sunday's Washington Post describes it: "Gore advisers maintain that the budget surplus makes a federal role in teacher pay affordable and that the need to supply the economy with educated workers makes it advisable … If Mr. Gore were to have his way, Washington also would for the first time tell states how to license teachers."
Thankfully, while Gov. George W. Bush, who made his proposal first, is also proposing billions of dollars in federal aid to teachers, his would come via tax credits and block grants, thus minimizing the strings attached.
But the trend line is obvious: Prescription drugs, HMO regulations, school construction, teacher pay. Mr. Clinton said it, so you know its not true: The era of Big Government is not over. Hold on to your wallets: You ain't seen nothing' yet.

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