CBSN

Gimme Gridlock

Against The Grain, RKF, 010208
CBS/AP
You know how stuff that's supposed to be bad for you sometimes turns out to be good for you? In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer takes a fresh look at gridlock.

We've got good news and bad news.

First, the good news: the tax and budget deals negotiated this week demonstrate that the executive and legislative limbs of government are not, in fact, paralyzed despite all the dire predictions made during the siege of Florida.

The bad news is that now these people might actually do something.

They might enact real laws with real consequences, perhaps dire consequences. (One thing you didn't have to worry about in Bill Clinton's Washington was that a bill might become a law. It hardly ever happened. That's about to change.)

The risky part of this week's strenuous fiscal exertion is that all those big numbers may not add up as promised, just the way the numbers didn't behave properly after Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax reductions.

This time around, $1.35 trillion in tax relief is to be coupled with a 4 percent spending increase, an increase that doesn't even include several big-ticket items that President Bush supports. Does the phrase deficit spending ring a bell?

Consider the other major announcements from the Oval Office this week.

President Bush declared his intention to build a missile defense system. He also appointed a brand new commission to study substantial reforms in Social Security. Both projects are expensive and neither one is factored into the budget deal struck this week.

Ballpark estimates on how much a missile defense system will cost vary radically, from, say, $60 to $100 billion.

On top of that, expect the Pentagon to spend $20 to $30 billion a year more than the current budget when the administration completes its strategic review of things military later this year.

On Social Security, the Bush administration wants to privatize some part of it and that will cost $1 trillion over 10 years, according to the Bush 2000 campaign. That trillion dollars isn't visible in the new budget deal.

There is a slot for $300 billion to pay for a new prescription drug benefit in Medicare over the next decade. That's double what the president asked for in his budget request just a few weeks ago, but less than the $400 billion the Congressional Budget Office estimates it will cost.

See how the big numbers get bigger?

Of course, these fuzzy threats to the tidy math of the pending budget deal are just a few of the ones analysts have spotted so far.

The real budget busters are the surprises from left field wars, recessions, mass S&L failures, electricity shortages and so on.

All this gave some legislators last-minute cold feet as the House and Senate were poised to codify the deal, but it will still get passed. And it will be both a huge political victory for the underestimated president, and a huge olicy victory.

Mr. Bush kept his troops united and the Democrats didn't.

The result is far more than just a short-term win for the Republicans. It is a long-term budget blueprint with the potential to constrain government spending for years to come, spending on the kinds of programs Democrats like.

The Democrats have lost a battle that could cost them the war. The Republicans realize that, the Democrats don't seem to have figured it out yet.

The bottom line is that it looks like Mr. Bush will defy what his dad called the gloom and doom crowd and get the bulk of his tax package passed.

The tax reductions will be accompanied by a soft economy, increases in planned federal spending, and increases in unplanned federal spending.

It might work out. But gridlock doesn't look so bad anymore.

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