On the Cutting Edge: The House GOP Alternative to Clinton's Budget

Article excerpt

On March 18, 1993, 132 Republicans and three Democrats did something unusual for members of Congress: they voted to shrink the size of the government.

The vote was for a budget resolution, offered on the floor of the House of Representatives by Republicans on the House Budget Committee, to reduce federal spending by $430 billion over five years. This GOP budget achieved the same amount of deficit reduction promised by President Clinton's budget. But unlike the president's plan, the Republican budget achieved all of its savings through spending restraint. It did not raise any taxes and did not disturb the government's Social Security contract with the American people.

Many Republicans initially believed it was a mistake to put forth such a budget of their own. However, as the new ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, I believed it was absolutely necessary for the GOP to develop a bold, serious budget alternative to the president's economic plan. My GOP Budget Committee colleagues and I convinced most members of our party in the House that a detailed budget was essential in distinguishing the Republicans' intent to control the growth of the federal government from the Democrats' desire to expand it.

"No Hot Air, Show Me Where"

When President Clinton presented his budget strategy on February 17, in what he called his "Vision of Change for America," he asked critics of his plan to be as specific and thorough as he was in developing their alternatives, and precisely identify where they would allocate resources differently. His demand: "No hot air, show me where." Leon Panetta, the new director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), repeated the challenge in testimony to the House Budget Committee.

Committee Republicans already had decided that any alternative they produced would be substantive and specific - it was not enough to call for a spending freeze or spending "caps." Such mechanisms only determine limits on aggregate spending amounts; they do not face up to the kinds of program changes needed to achieve the savings. They also ignore the different impact that the same level of spending cuts will have on individual programs and departments.

Control of federal dollars can only come by confronting particular programs line by line. Republicans needed to show precisely how and where they would achieve the savings they claimed.

A Clinton Trap?

Republicans who were reluctant to go forward with an alternative had understandable concerns. They saw the Clinton challenge as a trap. A GOP budget alternative would draw attention away from the Clinton budget and its numerous flaws, while asking Republican members to support spending cuts that could be unpopular with many constituents. It could draw the opposition of various interest groups, focusing attention on what they disliked in the Republican plan and away from everything that was wrong with the Clinton plan.

Despite these hazards, Budget Committee Republicans were convinced that, without a credible alternative to the president's budget, Republicans would come off as petty naysayers whose criticisms would not be taken seriously. Even more important was the future impact of such an approach. If Republican policies were to succeed in the long run, they would have to be formulated, explained, and advanced at every opportunity. If Republicans wanted to govern again, they had to show they knew what role the federal government should play in the life of the nation and that process had to start now, with the budget resolution.

The zeal and commitment of the committee's Republicans became apparent early. They quickly agreed on certain demanding criteria for their budget:

Credibility. Every spending reduction, every program termination, every government reform had to be based on sound and defensible analysis. There could be no gimmicks.

Specifics. …