Principle over Politics? The Domestic Policy of the George H. W. Bush Presidency

By Richard Himelfarb; Rosanna Perotti | Go to book overview

Discussant: Roger B. Porter

Let me try to be succinct in shedding some light on how this looked from my perspective.

Those who know me well will not be surprised that I do not share the unrelieved cynicism that some have expressed this morning and elsewhere. My brief remarks will focus on three things: one, my impression as to why President Bush made the decision that he did to enter into negotiations leading to the budget agreement; secondly, to look at two failures associated with the budget agreement; and then three, to conclude by noting one of its underappreciated successes.

During the meeting when President-elect Bush asked me to serve as his assistant for economic and domestic policy, I asked him what was his number-one priority with respect to economic and domestic policy. Without pausing or hesitating, he said, “I have no question in my mind that the most urgent task we face over the next four years is dealing with the structural budget deficit.”

At the time, we were in the fifth year or sixth year of an economic recovery. George Bush had spent eight years as vice president during the Reagan administration and had seen all of the battles that President Reagan had been engaged in over the budget. He was convinced then—and I think remained convinced throughout his presidency—that dealing with the structural deficit was a major problem—a problem, as has been pointed out very eloquently this morning, not only in the United States but elsewhere. It was a subject that he discussed regularly with foreign leaders, and as a result, I think this was something that preoccupied his attention. It is reflected in his consistent and sustained support for a balanced budget constitutional amendment. He was quite intrigued with the idea, as it was presented to him, of a package of budget reforms that would include enforceable caps on both discretionary and entitlement spending. I think one of the reasons he decided to do what he did was in part because of a very deep conviction he holds with respect to reducing the structural budget deficit.

Secondly, we are all influenced by those events which we know best and by our experience. In his instance, the experience of eight years in the Reagan administration was a very profound one. He had seen President Reagan engage in negotiated budget agreement exercises in 1982, the Social Security package in 1983, the Rose Garden Compromise in 1984, and the budget package worked out in 1987 in the wake of the stock market crash. Each of these exercises had involved both a revenue or tax component and a spending restraint or reduction component. In these exercises, people played as to how you could come up with phrases that did not use the “T word” [taxes]: “Revenue enhancement” and “receipt strengthener” were two favorites in this game that people frequently used. As vice president, George Bush had seen President Reagan engage in these negotiations without being viewed as a tax increaser. And he did recognize that there was a serious problem

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