"The sooner Democratic and some Republican candidates admit they’ll be unable to inaugurate a host of new programs, control inflation and balance the budget, all during their term, the better off this nation will be."
This paraphrases (so as to apply the content to the current presidential campaign than that actual presidency) the beginning of a Times column I wrote early in the first year Georgian Jimmy Carter was president, 30 years ago. My longtime friend, Keith Grogan, had clipped and saved and included it in several columns he gave me recently. Continuing verbatim, I wonder how many recognize how those words resemble some of today’s presidential campaigns.
"The first Carter budget, when analyzed closely, does just what his opponents claimed he would do if elected. It creates an increasing role for the federal government in managing the economy and curing the nation’s social ills. It initiates the greatest effort since Lyndon Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ to transfer wealth from the halves to the have-nots. Denials notwithstanding, in reveals a willingness to risk more inflation to promote faster economic growth."
(NOTE: The following figures are in 1977 dollars).
"The budget for manpower and social services is up $7.1 billion, the biggest single Carter increase in the Ford budget. Following are $3.2 billion more for public assistance such as food stamps, welfare, etc.; $2.2 billion more for increased interest on the growing public debt; $1.3 billion more for Medicare and other medical programs.
"Some, but not all, of these spending increases are covered by a decrease in the Ford-proposed defense spending. Even so, the Carter defense budget is about $7 billion more than the last Ford budget despite promises to cut in $7 billion.
"Other factors can be expected to make it worse than it really seems.
"The increased federal borrowing must push interest rates up thereby canceling out some of the stimulative action he plans for the economy. Congress can be expected to add substantially to — not subtract from — Carter’s budget thereby increasing the deficit even more."
We know what conditions were like when he surrendered the presidency at the end of his first and only term. Interest rates were in the 20 percent range, making home loans even more unaffordable than today and stifling business. Unemployment was well above 10 percent, inflation in that same range. Social Security tax increases were enacted, but delayed until his first term ended.
The welfare mentality was embedded even more deeply. Our military and vital ground intelligence was weakened, though in fairness Congress bore at least an equal part of that responsibility. Terrorism was basically ridiculed.
One thing worrying me greatly about the upcoming presidential campaign is that Carter actually is more conservative than virtually every one of the major Democratic front-runners, with the possible exception of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. As much as I believe Hillary Clinton has the most correct perception of what’s needed in Iraq and the war on terror than any of her party rivals, she’s also more enamored of the "big government knows best" philosophy than any of them, except perhaps Richardson.
A gear shift if you please: Let’s hope we don’t throw out the baby with the bath water as a result of the recent (and needed and welcomed) media blitz on congressional "earmark" abuses. Those patently abusive ones, particularly those pinpointing no-bid projects for specific businesses, usually controlled by major campaign contributors, ought to be exposed.
Let’s remember, though, earmarks have a very useful purpose in the way government must work because of its sheer size. Congress can’t line-item every item, debate it, etc. Instead, it authorizes programs and in funding them delegates the responsible bureaucracy to write administrative regulations. As funds are appropriated, that bureaucracy prioritizes which programs are to be funded within the available appropriations and how much.
An intended program can be omitted. The earmark is how legislators direct the bureaucracy to spend that stipulated amount on that specific program or nowhere else.
Does it need reform? Yep. Should it be eliminated? Not unless a better way to get the job done in the real world can be found, which actually is the best course. The media blitz of exposures could focus enough attention on the issue to do just that. Let’s hope.
Ted Oglesby is retired editorial page editor. Originally published Oct. 16, 2007.