The Public, the Budget

FOR the House Republican freshmen, at least, a balanced federal budget isn't just a nice idea, or a shrewd political stance - it's an article of faith.

President Clinton, for all his criticism of House zealotry, has often said he shares that faith.

But there's a third party whose views may count even more in the great budget debate - the American public. Just how wide and deep is its adherence to the balanced-budget creed?

Public opinion analysts point out that a balanced federal budget has surfaced as a leading public concern only in the last 10 years. As an issue, it tracks closely with the rising public perception that government is too big and out of control. For many Americans, the deficit symbolizes irresponsible, bloated government.

This shift toward a suspicion of activist, "big" government has pulled along politicians in both parties. Fiscal responsibility has been a banner issue for "New Democrats" like Bill Clinton.

The current drama in Washington is the attempt to transform a popular political slogan - the call for a balanced budget - into actual policy. Will the public's affection for that goal survive the trial by fire of cutting runaway entitlements, like Medicare and Medicaid, and other programs with strong popular backing?

Will the compromise required to arrive at a balanced-budget agreement look like "business as usual" to many voters, canceling out political gain for either party?

Will the devolution of federal programs to the state and local level restore people's faith that government can be manageable and accountable?

American voters will be shaping answers to these questions over the coming political year.

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