Mr. Feingold Goes To Washington and Says: Cut Deficit, Not Taxes

AS the tax-slashing bandwagon gains momentum on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats alike are jostling to jump aboard.

Lawmakers still worried about the deficit seem old-fashioned, out of step with the Gingrich-dominated times, and most of them are keeping their reservations to themselves.

Most - but not all. A few lonely voices in the fiscal wilderness are striving to make their objections heard. One of the most vociferous is a freshman Democratic Senator from Wisconsin, an inheritor of the old upper Midwest liberal tradition who has no problem saying tax cuts are bad policy, period.

``What is happening on both the Democratic and Republican sides ... is a rush to complete fiscal irresponsibility that has nothing to do with political party,'' asserts Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin.

Bucking the popular tide and President Clinton, Senator Feingold blasts the move to reduce taxes as ``old politics.... It's handing out the turkeys at Christmas,'' he says.

Instead of cutting levies, he argues that Congress should be doing everything possible to eliminate the deficit to ensure the nation's long-term economic health. Savings won by slashing spending should be used to that end and no other, he says.

The tax-cut debate has taken center stage this week as committees of the week-old, Republican-controlled Congress grapple with the sweeping fiscal measures at the heart of the GOP's ``Contract With America.''

The contract calls for about $200 billion in tax cuts over the next five years. But at the same time, it pledges to balance the federal budget by 2002 while not increasing the deficit or touching defense funds and Social Security.

Democrats denounce the GOP tax-cut plan - even while advancing their own tax cut - as a windfall for the wealthy. Democrats say the massive cuts the plan requires will devastate the lives of millions of poor- and moderate-income Americans.

The moderates

But to his vexation, many of Feingold's fellow Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, have lined up behind their own modest tax- and spending-reduction schemes. Still smarting from the GOP takover of Congress, they seek to retake the political high ground before the 1996 presidential and congressional elections.

Some lawmakers on both sides remain uncommitted to any plan. Most are Democrats who say they will agree to tax cuts only when they see how spending can be pared. Several moderate GOP senators say taxes should be cut only if spending is slashed deep enough to cover the reductions and part of the deficit.

So for now, Feingold seems to be the only one on Capitol Hill openly opposed to lower taxes. Tax cuts, he contends, will fuel inflation by injecting cash into America's increasingly robust economy. The Federal Reserve Board would be compelled to raise interest rates further, wiping out the savings most Americans will gain from lower taxes.

``All you are doing is giving back some money to people who will then end up having higher interest rates and pay a lot more for their mortgage and their car,'' says Feingold.

Furthermore, he says, the deficit is an economic time-bomb for the next generation. ``We are at a time when every parent knows that they may not even have the slightest chance of leaving their children better off than they were,'' he asserts.

Conventional wisdom says Feingold's position is akin to political hari-kari. Not so, retorts the former Wisconsin state official.

82-point plan

He points out that he was elected in 1992 despite his open opposition to tax cuts. Instead, he promotes an 82-point deficit-reduction plan that includes defense spending reductions and tax hikes for corporations and higher-income Americans.

Feingold also cites polls showing Americans favoring deficit reduction over tax cuts. ``People ... feel they are leaving their children and grandchildren a legacy that is just impossible to deal with,'' he says.

Feingold strives to avoid criticizing his party's titular leader, President Clinton, for his $60 billion middle-class tax-cut plan. He stresses that after promising such a cut in his campaign, Clinton instead pushed legislation through the last Congress that reduces the deficit by $500 billion over five years.

But he will say that Clinton's tax cut plan ``is not responsible'' and should be shelved in favor of further deficit reduction.

Despite the long odds against it, Feingold believes his view will eventually prevail. ``It can be stopped in the Senate,'' he says of the tax cuts.

That, of course, remains to be seen.

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