Rosty Leads the Charge

SOMEONE hand Dan Rostenkowski a helmet and flak jacket. The gutsy chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee is charging up another hill amidst rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in air. Recall that last year Mr. Rostenkowski got pummeled - literally - by senior citizens angry over his Medicare surtax plan. Now the congressman who looks like central casting's idea of a marine general is flinging himself at an even bigger bunker: the federal budget deficit. Last weekend ``Rosty'' launched an assault on the deficit by proposing a five-year, $512 billion program of tax increases and spending cuts that would, he projects, produce a budget surplus by 1994. It's a bold flanking movement around the Gramm-Rudman trench warfare that the deficit debate has become.

Trouble is, if Rosty looked around he'd see that nobody's following him. His fellow Democrats, Republicans in Congress, and the Bush administration are all still at the bottom of the hill yelling ``Go get 'em, Dan,'' while waiting to see if he hits a mine.

And there are plenty of mines out there. Among other things, Rostenkowski would raise the income-tax rate on affluent Americans from 28 percent to 33 percent, raise excise taxes on gas, tobacco, and liquor, and freeze cost-of-living adjustments in most government entitlement programs, including Social Security.

Certainly the plan has elements to recommend it. As the first truly comprehensive proposal to eliminate America's debilitating deficit, it reflects courage and imagination. The sacrifices it calls for are pretty evenly spread; the plan doesn't appear to mask a hidden partisan agenda.

Yet policymakers are cautious, and not just for political reasons. Many economists think the country is teetering on the brink of recession, and higher taxes could push it over the edge.

But in laying down his challenge to Congress and the White House to either back his plan or offer something better, Rostenkowski has performed a constructive service. He's suggested realistic tradeoffs and, it's hoped, shifted debate onto central questions and away from Senator Moynihan's sideshow of lowering Social Security payroll taxes, which would deepen the deficit.

As Rostenkowski points out, as long as the deficit overhangs the US economy the country's attention will be on the ``excesses of the past'' rather than the ``challenges of the future.'' If his isn't the way to cut the deficit albatross from around America's neck, who's got a better one?

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