A Federal Budget of Just $10 Million, but Something’s Familiar

This is going to sound unpleasantly like a question on a high school history exam: Compare and contrast the federal budget of 1797-98 with the federal budget of 2012.

The older one is larger — not in dollars, but in the size of its ledgerlike pages. They measure 16 by 9¾ inches. The 2012 budget is formatted for 8½-by-11-inch paper.

The older one fills exactly nine pages. The 2012 budget is 216 pages long, with a 1,364-page appendix.

“I think we should have somebody hand-write the budget now,” said Laurel Acevedo, carefully turning the pages of the 1797-98 document, “and maybe it will sink in how much we’re spending.”

She and her husband, Alexander, are dealers whose Alexander Gallery specializes in 18th- and 19th-century American paintings and historical items. Mr. Acevedo said he had acquired the early American budget as part of a deal for a painting several years ago. It had been sold for $2,400 by another gallery in 2007. It is on display at the Winter Antiques Show, which opens on Friday at the Park Avenue Armory, at East 67th Street.

As Ms. Acevedo leaned in to read the figures in the old budget, several things became clear.

For starters, the current budget is easier to read. The older one was handwritten with sometimes impenetrable flourishes. Don’t even think about whether they had red ink — if they did, they did not use it, even though the still-young government already had big debts. The ink, probably black when it dried, has faded to brownish.

The bottom line? In 1797-98, the total federal budget was $10,161,097.48. For 2012, $3.7 trillion was the amount proposed by President Obama.

The United States — “the U. States” on the cover — listed $2.8 million for domestic debt and “reimbursement of 6 pct. stock bearing a present interest.” Another line item, for $238,637.30, covered “interest on domestic loans.”

The older budget made no mention of earmarks, the widely criticized practice by which members of Congress set aside money in bills for what is often denounced as pork-barrel spending back home. But the 1797-98 budget did carry a curious line item “brought forward” for “Zacheus Biggs, agent for the purchase of spirits.” It said he was paid $9.81.

The 1797-98 budget weighs less than a pound. The current one, if you print it yourself, using PDF files from the Office of Management and Budget’s Web site, totals 15 pounds, 5½ ounces.
Turning a page in the 1797-98 document, Ms. Acevedo pointed to the signature of Oliver Wolcott Jr., the secretary of the treasury. Appointed by George Washington to succeed Alexander Hamilton in 1795, he stayed on when John Adams was inaugurated in 1797.

“We have Wall Street money men becoming treasury secretaries,” she said. “Here the treasury secretary became a banker.”

Indeed, Wolcott, who resigned in 1800, became a judge and then left the bench to become a trader; his partners included the merchant who built Gracie Mansion. Then he turned to banking, founding an institution called Bank of America (but not the financial giant that took over Countrywide Financial and Merrill Lynch as the financial crisis deepened in 2008). Later still, Wolcott was elected to 10 straight one-year terms as governor of Connecticut.

The 1797-98 document, Ms. Acevedo said, provided “one of those great teachable moments” last summer when she and her husband were trying to explain the debt-ceiling crisis to their two daughters, who are 10 and 12. Mr. Acevedo pulled out the budget document, which had been squirreled away, to show them.

“Think of how old our country was at that point,” Ms. Acevedo said. “Not very old, but it looks like the same running tally that we’ve got right now. The names are different, but this is not a new problem for our country, our receipts and expenditures, as they would have called them. Our overspending. Our borrowing. Our credit crisis.”

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