Jump In on the Budget

PRESIDENT Clinton served notice this week that he would soon be entering the budget fray with his own set of proposals, though he was a little fuzzy about when and how.

The administration strategy has been to snipe from the sidelines as the Republicans dominate the budget turf. But with the process moving toward a final GOP plan, with crucial appropriations decisions beyond that, Mr. Clinton felt impelled to tip his hat when the question was put to him by interviewers on, no less, New Hampshire public radio.

The president, a declared deficit fighter himself, needs to make his budget prospectus known -- and not just for the political benefits of appearing engaged and decisive. The public needs to see that those who question the Republican approach have more to add to the debate than cries of alarm at every proposed cutback. If there's another way to balance the budget sometime early in the next century -- it certainly doesn't have to be the GOP's arbitrarily chosen date of 2002 -- let's hear about it.

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The budget discussion, otherwise, could mire in tussles over specific pieces of the huge federal spending enterprise, with the bigger picture of national direction lost.

For instance, the administration persistently argues that human investments, like education and training, shouldn't be cut. It's a strong case, but how does it fit into an overall plan with offsetting cuts in other places?

Or defense. Republicans seem bent on boosting spending in the name of reviving a supposedly weakened military. Before it all crumbles into an additional Seawolf submarine versus research on national missile defenses, would someone revive the discussion of long-term needs in a quickly changing world?

Or the elimination of whole departments. Useful Commerce Department functions -- from boosting trade to charting the weather -- probably could be absorbed elsewhere or made into stand-alone agencies. If the administration thinks all current departments should be saved, let's hear its budgetary reasoning.

The Republicans may have doubtful priorities, but they deserve credit for pressing ahead with the onerous task of drawing up a serious balanced budget plan. Their momentum is considerable.

If their chief critic is to have a hand in redirecting their work, he had better make his own budget handiwork known.

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