Federal Diet Plan


Bill Clinton and Al Gore have some decent ideas about reinventing government—streamline purchasing regulations, make it easier to reward competent employees and fire slackards, consolidate redundant agencies. But the vice president's National Performance Review is, in truth, a pretty wimpy effort.

Gore says reinventing government can save $108 billion over five years. That's a mere 1.2 percent of total federal spending. And, unlike the Grace Commission and other watchdogs that have tried to root out "waste, fraud, and abuse," Clinton and Gore have no intention of returning these savings to taxpayers. Health care, national service, and other new spending programs will expand the bureaucracy as it becomes more "efficient."

The review's purpose—and its Achilles' heel—was identified by David Osborne (a performance review consultant) and Ted Gaebler in their 1992 manifesto: "Reinventing Government addresses how governments work, not what they do."

Reform-minded Americans, however, want elected officials to streamline the civil service and eliminate costly programs. An exit poll last November revealed that more than half of Clinton's support came from people who wanted lower taxes and smaller government. The president's desire to endlessly expand federal programs also contrasts sharply with the priorities of the much-ballyhooed "Perot voters" and other grass-roots reformers.

Fortunately, there's a proposal that would force the White House and Congress to put the federal government on a diet. Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.) has introduced the Taxpayer Debt Buy-Down Act of 1993. Walker's bill would reinvent government by shrinking it—and let individual taxpayers decide how strict the diet wauld be.

The Walker plan would let taxpayers use their income-tax forms to set aside as much as 10 percent of their tax payments to retire federal debt. Every dollar checked off would buy down a government bond or other form of debt.

Unlike Clinton's deficit-reduction trust fund, the Walker plan is no gimmick: Every dollar designated for debt retirement would also permanently cut federal spending by a dollar. Politicians wouldn't be able to dodge these cuts. If Congress didn't slash programs, then an across-the-board sequester would automatically make the cuts. (The plan exempts Social Security, deposit insurance, and interest payments.)

We're talking real money. Say the plan passes this year. The Congressional Budget Office projects that if every taxpayer checked off the maximum, in fiscal year 2003 the program would have retired more than $700 billion in debt and federal spending that year would be $70 billion less than it was in the first year of the plan. (Spending in the sequesterable programs would drop from a scheduled $1.645 trillion to $945 billion.) The federal debt could be paid off within 15 years.

Even if no one checked off a dollar for debt reduction, the plan would freeze spending at its current budgeted level. The anticipated growth in tax revenue could balance the budget within six or seven years.

Of course, Congress could introduce new spending programs and pay for them with new excise, consumption, or payroll taxes. But people might be less likely to endorse additional government programs if they weren't "free."

And the Walker plan would force Congress to explain, for instance, why taxpayers should pay farmers not to grow crops, give every 65-year-old virtually free medical care, and guarantee any high school graduate both a free college education and a government job after graduation.

Desperate times often require extreme measures. Since Ronald Reagan promised to balance the budget and pay off the debt in 1980, federal debt has grown by nearly $3 trillion. At a Cato Institute forum in September, Walker admitted his fiscal revolution would result in fierce debates. Just remember, dieters: no pain, no gain.