WASHINGTON -- President Clinton this month is keeping promises he made during the budget debate by laying out for Congress an ambitious agenda to cut another $200 billion out of the deficit through major reforms in the government's sprawling spending programs.
Clinton's $500 billion budget package already is expected to reduce the deficit from its $290 billion record high last year to below $200 billion from 1995 to 1998, according to projections of the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget.
The President's latest initiatives promise to make even more progress during that period, perhaps deflating the deficit to near $150 billion -- a level not seen since the mid-1980s. But even more important, they aim to tame long-run budget problems that are threatening to push the deficit back toward $300 billion at the end of the century.
The first set of proposals that the White House issued last week surprised nearly everyone with its breadth and aggressiveness at trying to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse.
The report of Vice President Al Gore's task force on reinventing government included 800 detailed reforms of spending programs in almost every nook and cranny of the government. If enacted by Congress, the proposals. would save $108 billion over five years. according to OMB estimates.
Many of the proposed reforms have been seen before in the budgets of Presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan as well as in Clinton's own first budget -- such as the elimination of the notorious honey bee and mohair subsidy programs that escaped the ax in the first round of the deficit debate this summer.
Clinton's grant consolidation proposals and some other reform measures -- like the proposed elimination of highway demonstration projects and the privatization of federal electric power administrations -- are oddly reminiscent of perennial Bush and Reagan proposals that Congress routinely ignored.
But political observers are giving the Clinton proposals better odds of being enacted precisely because the Democratic Congress may not be able to ignore with impunity the same proposals coming from a Democratic President. Only one party could be blamed for such a return to gridlock.
"You will see a surprisingly good response" to the Gore proposals, predicted Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council, shortly after the White House announced them.
The pressure is on Democratic representatives, especially because so many pledged to work with Clinton to further cut spending this fall when they voted for the budget package with its hefty $250 billion of tax increases. H. Ross Perot, with his steady drumbeat for spending cuts, has also pumped up public pressure for such reforms.
Clinton political aides predict that the stiffest opposition to the reform plan will come from federal employee groups, which stand to lose 252,000, mostly middle-management jobs as well as personnel regulations that protect federal employees from being fired.
Congressional Republicans, in contrast to their quick denunciation of Clinton's budget plan, almost uniformly gave the reform package an open-minded reception last week.
As with Clinton's health-care reform package due to be announced next week, Republicans could provide critical support in the drive to enact the government reform proposals in the next year.
With details of the health-care package leaking out of the White House almost daily, it is becoming clear that that plan could also have a major impact on the deficit, as Clinton promised.
The plan is expected to impose spending caps on Medicare and Medicaid, which are increasing at more than three times the rate of inflation and have been the two largest contributors to the deficit. According to CBO estimates, growth in the two programs will drive the deficit back up to $300 billion by the end of the century without such caps.
Clinton's proposed caps, along with reduced Medicare and Medicaid rolls as employers take over employee health coverage under the reform plan, could save the government more than $200 billion by the end of the century.
But only about $100 billion of the savings is expected to be devoted to deficit reduction under the Clinton plan. The rest of the savings would be absorbed by the plan's massive expansion of health-care benefits to cover prescription drug purchases and long-term care for the elderly, and comprehensive care for the unemployed and others who are not currently insured.