CUTTING the federal budget will take years, not months. Harry Truman was fond of saying he never saw a budget that could not be cut.
The domestic version of the Truman doctrine was that each and every spending department and agency must be carefully examined for serious budget cutting.
Murray Weidenbaum, who worked for Truman at that time, recalls another saying: "Good budgeting is the uniform distribution of dissatisfaction." He feels that not enough of the federal government's agencies and supporters are dissatisfied today. "Budget cutting should continue until they all are angry," he argues.
Many Americans in recent years have experienced sharp cuts in their personal budgets or seen serious economic troubles in their regions. The Northeast is coming out of a deep slump. California is facing sharp adjustments today. The Midwest dealt with hard times earlier.
But no one reads of a slump in the nation's capital. Civil servants seem to come through recessions relatively untouched, though having to deal with a wage freeze at times. Unemployment hasn't climbed in the Washington area to the 9 or 10 percent level it did at one point, for example, in Massachusetts.
Perhaps that's why Republicans haven't been getting much flak for their Senate filibuster that untracked President Clinton's budget stimulus bill. Many citizens ask, "If the current budget is so tough, why aren't there widespread shouts of dissatisfaction from civil servants and long unemployment lines in Washington?"
Defense contractors are being hard hit. The prospect of base cuts has raised alarms around the country. But there is considerable public suspicion that really tough budget cutters could trim back all sorts of programs, big and small: military supplies and personnel, farm and industry subsidies, and so on. Budget experts say that only cuts in entitlements and health expenses will really trim the deficit. And that may be so. But a million here, a million there adds up to something, and that sort of stern a ction has been missing in Washington.
Economists, aside from those in the administration, figured the $19.5 billion package wouldn't have given a $6 trillion economy much of a nudge. It is, after all, not quite one-third of 1 percent of gross domestic product. Presumably the extra spending, while adding some billions to the federal deficit, would have been helpful in creating some extra jobs. But the Clinton administration and Congress should not forget to review every dime of taxpayer money being spent. It took years to reach a $290 billion
deficit. It will take years of budget-trimming effort to undo it.