Commentary

Al Gore’s Risky Budget Policies

This essay was distributed nationally by Copley News Service.
In Vice President Al Gore’s mind, nothing is riskier than letting taxpayers keep more of their money. Which makes his election the riskiest action American voters could take.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates a cumulative $4.6 trillion surplus through 2010. Alas, it has never been more obvious that budget surpluses are more dangerous than deficits.

The surplus will never materialize, since both parties want to spend as much as possible. Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush is attempting to demonstrate his compassion by proposing new spending programs about $425 billion worth over the next decade, according to the National Taxpayers Union.

And he’s now added another $158 billion to expand Medicare.

The GOP Congress is even worse. My Cato Institute colleagues Stephen Moore and Stephen Slivinski observe in a new study that ”The 106th Congress is well on its way to becoming the largest-spending Congress on domestic social programs since the late 1970s.”

Still, Gore wins the would-be big spender race. NTU figures his promises so far come to $2.3 trillion over 10 years. That’s more than the total non-Social Security surplus.

And, the one constant of Washington is that outlays always go up faster and higher than predicted. Indeed, no one takes future budget projections seriously.

As Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., said of the Clinton administration: ”They cooked the numbers.”

That a Gore administration is likely to be loose with the public purse is also evident from his congressional record. The nonpartisan NTU rates legislators, with scores running from 0 (wastes money on everything) to 100 (consistently attempts to cut spending).

Between 1979 and 1992, Rep., and then Sen. Al Gore scored between 11 and 36. His composite average was 21, about half the overall Senate average and barely two-thirds of the Senate Democratic average.

Despite his more conservative reputation, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman is little better. His ratings between 1992 and 1999 ran from eight to 26.

His overall average was 24, about half the Senate average (and a bit above the Senate Democratic average). But last year, Lieberman’s score was a dismal eight, barely one-sixth the Senate average.

In fact, the Gore-Lieberman ticket has been promising voters the world while trying to scrimp on the details. Admits economic adviser Alan Blinder: ”Numerology and campaign stump speeches don’t mix very well.”

For instance, Gore has promised ”universal” preschool for $50 billion. But he neglects to tell listeners that he’s dropped 3-year-olds from the program. His stay-at-home parental tax credit applies only to those with kids under 1 year old.

The vice president touts a retirement proposal that would not take effect until after he leaves office. And he promotes college tuition tax benefits that would barely expand current law.

Despite such studied legerdemain, Gore still can’t make the numbers work. Write Bob Davis and John McKinnon of the Wall Street Journal: the Vice President ”doesn’t have enough money to pay for all his campaign promises. So he’s adopted something of a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t campaign style.”

They add: ”When campaign promises clash with budget restraints, he scales back the promises, but not necessarily the rhetoric.”

Equally bad is how Gore wants to use the tax system to manipulate private behavior. Rather than adopting the fairest tax cut of all, an across-the-board rate reduction, he would give an estimated $500 billion only to people who do what the government wants them to do.

Robert McIntyre of the liberal Citizens for Tax Justice complains that the Gore program is ”a whole bunch of government spending programs run by the Internal Revenue Service.” Oh, joy.

There is a bit more hope for the GOP nominees. Although George W. Bush has not served in Congress, Messrs. Moore and Slivinski produce a regular gubernatorial analysis. Between 1995 and 1998, candidate Bush scored 69 percent, compared to 50 percent for all governors and 53 percent for GOP governors.

Dick Cheney did serve in Congress, and NTU judged him at between 50 percent and 70 percent from 1979 to 1988. His composite score was 63 percent, well above the House average of 37 percent and the Republican congressional average of 52 percent.

Alas, their extravagant campaign promises suggest that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney cannot be trusted to shrink government. But they are still mere pikers compared to Gore and Lieberman.

Even more important, the Bush-Cheney tax cut is both bigger and fairer than that offered by the Democrats. The GOP candidates would at least return a bit more money to Americans, who are currently being grossly overcharged by government.

There are risky plans afloat in the presidential race. None is riskier than the idea of giving Gore the keys to the U.S. Treasury.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.