Budget Drama - Again

IF it's the end of September, it must be Perils-of-Pauline time again in Washington. The 1989 fiscal year is about to end; next year's budget is still being hammered together; the Gramm-Rudman wolf is at the door, ready to chew off large chunks of military and social spending. Will our heroes come to the rescue in time? Not to worry. Through some combination of ``reconciliation'' and temporary ``sequestration'' legislation, we'll all be able to relax in another month or so. Besides, the economic recovery continues nicely and some experts really doubt whether the budget deficit is that big a deal anyway.

But it is a big deal, really. Probably twice as big as the $100 billion Gramm-Rudman limit for 1990 once the fan of reality blows away the smoke, and once Social Security receipts are moved to where they belong. Red ink costs money as well as moral stature.

What bothers us is what Congressional Quarterly calls the ``unabashed reliance on fiscal chicanery and bookkeeping shell games that exceed even that which had become commonplace under President Reagan.''

Congressional Democrats and the Republican White House are doing everything they can to avoid the tough spending choices, and nobody is uttering the ``T'' word so long as Rosy Scenario - that favorite economic girlfriend - is still around to be courted.

And the thing is, it can only get tougher unless more political spine is shown. Without it, the drug war will remain a skirmish, aid to new democracies in East Europe will amount to a Big Mac, fries, and a shake (which is about what the latest offer to Poland comes to per Pole), and George Bush's becoming ``the education president'' and sending astronauts to Mars will not happen.

This is not to say that massive new spending is needed in such areas, but it will take more than words and the small amounts of money programmed thus far. It will certainly take more to pay for the savings-and-loan bailout and cleaning up the nuclear weapons-plant mess. There also are ways to save. The Pentagon can stand more squeezing. Freezing some entitlement payments for a year would save a lot (and a lot more in coming years). There are sources of new revenue without raising general taxes (tobacco and alcohol, for example).

But first the hardest step - deciding to do so - must be taken.

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