Commentary: Gop Magic: Trimmed Budget, Brimming Trough

When they were swept into office last November, congressional Republicans boldly vowed to balance the budget and remake government by scrapping scores of obsolete or wasteful federal programs, ending industrial policy, and turning over a variety of government duties to the private sector.

Instead, when GOP lawmakers return to Washington in September, they'll be putting the final touches on a revolution with a decidedly small r. They have trimmed much but killed little. They've slashed a handful of federal research programs embraced by President Clinton but left untouched scores of other business subsidies. They've hacked away at housing assistance for the poor and enforcement of environmental laws but larded the Pentagon budget with projects that even the generals don't want. Says moderate Democratic Progressive Policy Institute Vice-President Robert J. Shapiro: "They have largely left untouched the catalog of spending for powerful industries."

SELF-ENTRAPMENT. To be sure, the GOP deserves credit for engineering some long-needed spending cuts and for making deficit reduction a top priority. But by trashing Democratic constituencies while protecting their own, the Republicans are undercutting their credibility. And it could cost them dearly over the next few months as they try to sell skeptical seniors on cuts in Medicare benefits. Their argument will be based, in part, on claims that everyone must pay their fair share to help balance the budget. Yet a promised $245 billion tax cut most beneficial to business and the well-to-do already makes that argument seem hollow. And with fat-cat corporate contributors dodging the spending axe, GOP calls for shared patriotic sacrifice verge on the ridiculous.

So far, Congress has only partially completed work on the 13 money bills that set spending levels for much of what Washington does--from law enforcement to export subsidies. And big chunks of government, including entitlements such as Medicaid and welfare, as well as Medicare, must be tackled separately. But already, the GOP has sent a strong signal about just where it wants to take government.

Defense spending is a good example. In an era of spending restraint, the Pentagon would get about $5 billion more in fiscal 1996 than it did this year. Why? The Senate would build four Aegis cruisers, two more than the Navy wants. Not coincidentally, the ships would be built in Maine and Mississippi, home states of the chairman of the armed services' sea power subcommittee, William S. Cohen (R-Me.), and Majority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.). The House would spend $540 million to maintain the production line for the B2 bomber even though the Air Force says it doesn't need more of the costly planes. Meanwhile, both houses would throw a pile of cash at a new Star Wars antimissile defense system.

Backers of the project insist it would protect the U.S. from nuclear attack by rogue nations such as North Korea. Critics, however, see only fiscal cholesterol. "Calling the funding pork is unfair to pigs," fumes Senator Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). "This is pure, unadulterated lard."

The Republican Party's view on corporate subsidies is a little different. The GOP would continue to fund the Export-Import Bank and the Agriculture Dept.'s marketing promotion program--both of which shower largesse on big U.S. corporations such as Boeing Co. and Pillsbury Co. but do little for the country's small and midsize companies. Farm subsidies still haven't been cut. And despite all the promises to privatize everything from the air traffic control system to the federal agencies that provide inexpensive electric power in the West and South, little would actually be sold off.

WRONG REFRAIN. However, other business aid--particularly that embraced by President Clinton and labeled industrial policy--is a goner. The House GOP would eliminate funding for the Advanced Technology Program and slash spending for the High Performance Computing & Communications Initiative--two high-profile federal programs that promote high-tech research. Complains National Economic Council Chairman Laura D'Andrea Tyson: "There's a targeting of the Clinton investment agenda."

Republican apologists insist there's nothing wrong with helping supporters while punishing the opposition. That, they say, is the way it has always been done in Washington. And that's exactly the problem.