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Pundits & Prose

The Devil Is Always In The Details

By Charles Bierbauer/CNN

WASHINGTON (May 9) -- "We have an agreement," President Bill Clinton announced a week ago after lengthy negotiations on balancing the federal budget.

But did he have a deal?

"A lot of this is uncertain. A lot has not been pinned down," the Democrats' House minority leader Dick Gephardt cautioned as some things appeared to be coming unpinned this week. "This thing is moving faster than it should."

What the President also said was: "We have reached agreement in broad but fairly specific terms." The more complete statement revealed the less complete deal.

There are plenty of threads that could be pulled to start to unravel the intricate weave of the agreement. Congressman Bill Archer, the Texas Republican who chairs the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, tugged on one of them in a CNN interview Thursday.

The budget agreement anticipates $35 billion worth of tax cuts which Clinton wants for education over the next five years. Clinton is counting on his $1,500 "Hope Scholarship" -- an annual tax credit for two years of community college tuition -- and a tax deduction of up to $10,000 for college costs to ease the burden on middle-class families.

"I am really not sure what they have agreed to," Chairman Archer said. "In all the written material we've been given by our leadership, it does not specify a $35 billion amount."

That's because Republican leaders struck the deal by phone with White House negotiators last Friday. Administration officials were anxious to get it in writing.

Republican leaders were obliging, to a point, with a "Dear Mr. President" letter that promises to get "as close to $35 billion as possible" and to use the President's label "Hope" on whatever package emerges.

Archer, not a budget negotiator, is not obligated to make any such assurance. Rather, the chairman is demonstrating the traditional power of his committee's tax-writing authority. To a degree, he's also taking a measure of pleasureful revenge for the years he sat in the minority while the once mighty Dan Rostenkowski held sway from the chairman's seat. Committee chairs are a power unto themselves in Congress.

"I think it makes it much easier if we're looking at a 10-year number for $35 billion," Archer suggested. That would dilute the president's tuition benefit by half. That's not half a loaf the Democrats can swallow.

"That is probably the key factor in support of any tax measure, whether we have that $35 billion locked in or not," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle explained. And in five years, not 10.

"I would like to think they are honest differences of opinion," Daschle told a gaggle of reporters. Then, with a giggle, added: "That's my story right now, and I'm sticking to it."

What's going on here? It's called process and politics.

An agreement -- not one as sketchy as the President and Republican leaders announced last week -- is not necessarily a deal. A deal is not legislation. Legislation is not law.

These days, if Moses came down from the mountain -- Capitol Hill -- with his etched stone tablets someone would show up with hammer and chisel to amend his commandments.

The balanced budget agreement, which lacked even a handshake, is perishable. Neither the participants nor the press should have touted its attainment too hopefully. We all know Washington's pitfalls. Still, the process can save it, if the politics doesn't kill it.

This is not stereotypical partisan politics -- Republicans squared off against Democrats. Nor is it Congress versus the White House. Not House and Senate shenanigans.

President Clinton has forged his agreement with Congress' conservative Republican leaders -- Lott, Gingrich and the budget chairmen Domenici and Kasich. Yet Archer is also a crusty conservative. Is the Ways and Means chairman out of step with his own leaders? Democrats on Capitol Hill eagerly report that Archer has been booed in his own caucus and threatened with the loss of his chairmanship.

But the Democrats are living in a straw house of their own. It's no secret liberal Democrats in Congress are dismayed with Clinton's willingness to trim taxes at the cost of also trimming social programs. He's not bought back enough of those programs to satisfy liberals, especially not the guy with his eye on the White House -- Gephardt.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way! That's how Tolstoy saw it in "Anna Karenina." These are unhappy families.

And what chance do our families have of being happy with the outcome? Are those tax cuts coming? Will they be all they are promised to be?

Some. Maybe. No.

"We can do it, but we might not be able to do it in the magnitude that we'd like," says Chairman Archer.

He may not have seen it in writing, but Archer knows the limits within which he must work. The budget agreement calls for $135 billion in tax cuts over the next five years. Part of that would be offset by $50 billion in increased revenues, most of it from airline ticket taxes.

The tougher job will be getting all the tax cuts out of just $135 billion. They add up quickly:

  • $35 billion for education. Clinton's original plan cost $40 billion.
  • $60 billion -- or so -- for a $500 per child tax credit. Actual cost depends on age and income limits.
  • $25 billion to lower capital gains rates.
  • $20 billion from lower estate taxes.

Oops. Over $135 billion already. And haven't gotten to the expanded IRA accounts the Republicans want or the higher exemption on home sales Clinton wants.

They can have some of the above in full measure or all of the above in reduced form, but not all of the above as once promised. If Congress and the president can agree now on the tougher, finer details, they might have a deal.

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