Published: Sunday, March 24, 1991


DAVE BARRY Herald Columnist

Our elected leaders are working on the federal budget again. As you recall, the last time they did this, we had a Big Budget Crisis that resulted in -- prepare for a scary concept -- the shutting down of the federal government. This was of course a terrible hardship for the millions upon millions of Americans who work for the federal government. It also inconvenienced some vacationing civilians, because the government briefly closed a number of national parks, which meant shutting down Old Faithful, furloughing the federal bears, etc.

But finally, thank goodness, they worked out a budget, and the total, including gratuities, came to around $1.3 trillion. To give you, the ordinary taxpayer, an idea of how huge a sum of money this is, it's almost twice what the Red Sox are paying Roger Clemens this year. Here's another way to comprehend the magnitude of this number: If the entire $1.3 trillion federal budget were divided up among the 260 million men, women and children in the United States, you wouldn't get any of it. That's why we call you an "ordinary taxpayer."

So we see that the budget is very large. It would be even larger, but fortunately it does not include the military buildup in the Persian Gulf. The entire Gulf buildup was what our leaders call "off-budget." This is a shrewd financial concept they've come up with for keeping the budget in line: They declare that certain items are "off-budget, " which means these items are written down on a completely different piece of paper from the regular budget, which means, as any accountant will tell you, that they are free.

TIP FOR TAXPAYERS: This year, when you're filling out your tax return, declare that a certain percentage of your income is "off-budget." Go ahead! Call me from prison and let me know how it worked out!

The reason our leaders are concerned about keeping the budget down to the smallest possible number of trillion dollars is that they want to reduce that pesky budget deficit. For years this has been the No. 1 Fiscal Priority in Washington, and our leaders, by making some Tough Choices, have whittled the federal deficit down to just $3,000,000,000,000,00000000000000 0000000000000000000000000000000 0000000000000000000000000000000 000000000000000000 HELP HELP HELP 000000000000000 THE DEFICIT IS OUT OF CONTROL 00000000000000000 SOMEBODY HELP ME 000000000000000000000 PUSH IT BACK INTO THE CAGE 0000000000000000 NOW CLOSE THE DOOR (SLAM).

Whew, that was a close one! As we see, despite years of being reduced by our leaders, the deficit is actually getting larger. To understand how such a thing is possible, let's employ the classic economic technique of comparing the federal government to a woman named Marge.

Let's say that Marge has decided, following an embarrassing incident wherein paramedics had to employ an industrial winch to hoist her out of a Barcalounger, that she could stand to lose some weight. Let's also say that it's a Thursday night, which means Knots Landing is on TV, which means that, based on her prior performance, Marge would ordinarily consume one Mallomar every 2.5 minutes, and even more if it's an especially engrossing episode, like the one where Charlotte finally unraveled the mystery of who was sending unwashed panty hose to Frank via Federal Express. This means that Marge's projected consumption is a minimum of 24 Mallomars.

But on this particular Thursday, the new, more-disciplined Marge consumes only 21 Mallomars, a feat she accomplishes via sheer willpower, plus six "off-budget" Ring Dings. To the untrained taxpayer eye, Marge's Mallomar consumption still appears to be totally out of control. But a trained government economist would tell you that, compared with her projections, Marge's Mallomar consumption has actually been reduced by more than 12 percent. Good going, Marge!

This is exactly how our leaders "reduce" the pesky budget deficit -- by not increasing it as much as they thought they were going to. And they'll reduce it to a record level when they finish working on the current budget, which was submitted to Congress by President Bush back in February. His budget proposal was -- this is true -- 2,029 pages long. The mere act of printing this budget probably cost more than the entire War of 1812.

The reason they make the budget so long, of course, is that the federal government is an extremely complex entity with many serious responsibilities, plus they want you to fall asleep before you get to the really comical items. So on the early pages there will be sensible-sounding items like:

"Feeding the Homeless -- $27 million"


"Spying on Russia -- $387 million"

So everybody will get bored and quit reading before Page 1,893, which will say something like:

"Growing Rutabagas In Space -- $983 million"

Of course Congress doesn't just "rubber-stamp" the president's budget. No sir, the members of Congress take their fiscal responsibility very seriously, and before they spend the taxpayers' money, they're going to want answers to some tough questions, such as: Shouldn't we also be growing soybeans in space? What about tobacco? Issues like these will be debated for months to come, and before you know it they'll be furloughing the bears again. It's sure to be a highly entertaining spectacle, although I personally plan to watch Knots Landing.

© 1991 Dave Barry/The Miami Herald.
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