A Christmas Carol

Commentary by Pete du Pont

It's not long until Christmas, a very special time for all families. In Washington, Christmas is a very special time, too. The president has lit the national Christmas tree. And lobbyists are beginning to think about what kinds of presents they would like to receive this year.

I've been rattling some of the packages under the national Christmas tree trying to guess what some companies and organizations could be getting.

Here's a nice present. Let's see - it's from the Department of Agriculture's Market Promotion Program. You know, a recent study from the Cato Institute pointed out that this department of the government spends $110 million a year underwriting the cost of promoting American products abroad.

Let's see what's inside. Well, there's $2.9 million to Pillsbury to advertise its muffins and pies in foreign countries. Here's another $10 million to promote Sunkist oranges. And look - $465,000 to advertise McDonald's Chicken McNuggets abroad. That's so thoughtful. One of the great things about Christmas is the ability to help someone in need. Without government help, how would McDonald's ever find half-a-million dollars to advertise its McNuggets?

The Cato Institute study also points out that: "Martin Marietta Corporation charged the Pentagon $263,000 for a Smokey Robinson concert, $20,000 for the purchase of golf balls and $7,500 for a 1993 office Christmas party. Ecology and Environment, Inc., of Lancaster, New York, spent $243,000 of funds designated for environmental clean-up on 'employee morale' and $37,000 on tennis lessons, bike races, golf tournaments and other entertainment." As they say in Hollywood: That's entertainment!

The Cato Institute estimates that there are more than 125 government programs that subsidize private business. In fiscal year 1995, more than $85 billion of taxpayers' money was spent on these programs. Now, let's see what else is here. Oh, here's a big one. The card says this one goes to the sugar industry. Now isn't that nice: $1.4 billion in price supports. I know the sugar industry will appreciate Congress' thoughtfulness - especially the 33 largest cane plantations which will receive more than $1 million each.

Of course, there are the gifts that keep on giving, too: dairy price supports, which keep the price of milk much higher than it otherwise would be so that the dairy industry will profit. Then there are gifts called "marketing orders" - regulations that govern how many oranges, almonds and other products can be grown.

Then there's President Clinton's Christmas shopping list - a few items he put in his latest budget. For example, $333 million for the New Generation of Vehicles program, or the "Clean Car Initiative," which the White House says will "ensure the global competitiveness of the U.S. automobile industry." That would be GM, Ford, and Chrysler, who collectively made nearly $10 billion in profits last year. I guess a gift from the government of another $333 million would still be appreciated.

Of course, the suggestion of eliminating or even just slowing this government spending spree can result in people calling you a modern day Scrooge. That association obviously misses two important points: First, nobody wants to hurt the Tiny Tims of this country; just the opposite. Those who are trying to cut all of these presents to wealthy corporations are doing so precisely because they want to make sure there is enough for the Tiny Tims.

Second, associating budget-cutting with Scrooge implies that the federal government - like Scrooge - has a lot of money that it selfishly doesn't want to part with. But the federal government doesn't have a surplus of money lying around. That debt is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Congress has often been generous in the past, so lobbyists continue to press for more presents. And because we are moving into an election year, the congressional spirit of generosity towards big businesses can be stronger than usual.

For most of us, Christmas is about sharing, especially with those who have the least. For Washington, Christmas can also be about sharing - sharing our tax dollars with those who have the most. Of course, it's easy to be generous with other people's money - especially when its the next generation's. And that's where the Ghost of Christmas Future comes in. No nation will long prosper by stealing from its children. If the Congress is serious about cutting the growth in federal spending s that we don't leave future generations of American overwhelmed with debt, it must cut back on its corporate Yule Tide generosity.

Otherwise, how in the "Dickens" are we going to get federal spending under control?