- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2000

Remember that pony you asked Santa Claus to bring you when you were 7 years old? You were disappointed then, but if you're still

interested, write a letter to Al Gore. A pony for all the people who never got one is about the only thing he hasn't promised yet.

Bill Clinton has made his mark by undertakings now universally known as "Clintonesque" unassailable, small-bore programs that made for great applause lines but cost so little that even the stingiest congressional Republicans could hardly object. Mr. Clinton, however, governed during a period of budget deficits. Mr. Gore expects a large and growing surplus, and he knows just what to do with it: Spend.

In days of old say, 1998 every big spending proposal was met with the vexing question of how to pay for it. Raise taxes? Run an even bigger deficit? Cut outlays elsewhere in the budget? None of these options was terribly attractive, so federal spending growth was contained, if not reversed.

But surpluses give the alluring impression that new programs don't actually have to be paid for. Taxes won't rise, other expenditures won't have to be cut, and there is no deficit to enlarge. Our new buddy Mr. Surplus will take care of it, with no pain or effort on our part. Mr. Gore doesn't even refer to his plans as spending money. He calls it "using our prosperity."

And use it he does. According to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the spending plans Mr. Gore has proposed so far would expand the federal budget by $2.3 trillion over the next 10 years. Mr. Gore has promised to preserve the share of the surplus attributable to Social Security. But by CRFB's calculations, his policies would exhaust not only the entire projected non-Social Security surplus, but part of the Social Security surplus as well. (Mr. Bush would do the same thing, says the group, but mostly through tax cuts rather than spending increases.)

Keeping up with Mr. Gore's cascade of goodies is like drinking from a fire hose. In August, the National Taxpayers Union Foundation published a study toting up the cost of everything promised so far by the two major party candidates. Two weeks later, it had to issue an update because Mr. Bush had come up with an additional $33 billion in spending to his original plans, while Mr. Gore had gone even further, adding $39 billion.

Even these alarming numbers may understate what his ambitions will cost. Mr. Gore's Medicare prescription drug plan is supposed to be priced at $340 billion over 10 years. But one lesson of budget history, says Carol Cox Wait of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget is this: "We almost always underestimate the cost of new health care entitlements and not by a little, but often by 50 or 100 percent." After the commitment is locked in, the bill could soar.

There is even more potential for blood-curdling shocks in Mr. Gore's "Retirement Security Plus." It would obligate the federal government to "match" private retirement savings, with Washington kicking in $3 for every $1 saved by low-income households, $1 for each $1 saved by middle-income families, and $1 for every $3 saved by high-income taxpayers.

Hoover Institution economist John Cogan told the Wall Street Journal that if everyone eligible saved the maximum covered by the program, this program would cost a staggering $160 billion a year. Even if participation rates were no higher than those of people in private pension plans (about 75 percent), it would add $120 billion a year to the federal budget not the $35 billion claimed by the vice president.

All this means that the non-Social Security surplus, and perhaps more, will vanish into the federal maw in no time. That, of course, assumes the surplus will even be there to squander. Budget projections are notoriously unreliable, because unforeseen events can have drastic effects.

Most of the surplus, moreover, is nothing more than a tantalizing possibility. Robert Bixby of the bipartisan Concord Coalition, which advocates fiscal restraint, notes that about 70 percent of the projected 10-year surplus doesn't appear until the last five years too far off to be the basis of permanent spending commitments. All it would take to obliterate the budget cushion is a serious recession, which is a real possibility in the next decade.

By then, taxpayers could be on the hook for a raft of new obligations that will demand funding regardless of the state of the economy and the deficit that took so long to overcome will be back. The presidential nominees act as though the budget surplus will be as permanent as the Appalachian Mountains. The way things are going, it will likely resemble the country singer George Jones' idea of romantic commitment: for better or for worse, but not for long.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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