Budgets and Votes

What a difference a year makes - especially when it's an election year.

Twelve months ago, Congress and the White House were locked in a no-holds-barred struggle over the federal budget that would lead to a series of government shutdowns and revitalize Bill Clinton's presidency.

This year, fighting hard for reelection, the president and congressional Republicans are trying to show voters they can work together to get the job done. On Monday, the Senate passed and sent to the White House a huge budget bill funding most of the government - on time for only the fourth time in 21 years. The president signed the final bill in the $600 billion package Tuesday morning.

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Certainly both sides had their eyes on the polls: Right now the likeliest scenario, although a lot could still change, appears to be that Mr. Clinton will win reelection and the GOP will keep control of Congress. Thus each side wants to demonstrate how well it can cooperate with the other.

The budget compromises allowed almost everyone - except GOP presidential hopeful Bob Dole - to claim victory. The president got $6.5 billion in additional spending for education, antidrug, and other programs, while Congress gave him $15.3 billion less than he originally asked for. GOP lawmakers got their bill to combat illegal immigration, but the White House was able to kill a provision to allow states to bar the children of illegal immigrants from school. Clinton gets to take credit for signing a whole slew of GOP bills from the Contract With America, stealing the issues out of Mr. Dole's quiver.

But the current bill makes scant progress in the crucial fight to balance the budget. When the GOP took control of Congress two years ago, general government spending, excluding entitlements, was $508 billion. The GOP whacked that down to $498 billion, then cut fiscal 1996 spending to $493 billion. The new bill, however, brings spending back up to $504 billion, $6 billion more than the GOP plan.

Both sides are to blame: The president declaims that "the era of big government is over," but he continues to propose program after program that involves new spending. The GOP Congress tacked on $11 billion more in defense spending than the Pentagon wanted - mostly on pork-barrel research and weapons projects, not on operations, where more money could be useful.

And the package does nothing to rein in runaway Medicare and Medicaid spending, entitlements that will eat up federal and state budgets in the near future if not brought under control. GOP lawmakers tried last year, of course, but have been so savaged by misleading Democratic and AFL-CIO "mediscare" advertisements that they didn't dare try another run at it this time around.

The budget, by its very nature, is a boring subject. But cumulative deficits and out-of-control entitlement programs affect everyone - especially the seniors and working families who can least afford it. Without a fix, the integrity of the programs themselves is threatened, and payroll taxes would have to be unacceptably increased.

Whoever wins control of the White House and Congress next year must redouble efforts to bring both the budget and entitlements under control. It will take bipartisan political courage and will involve tough choices. But it's got to be done.

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