Congressional To-Do List

Americans are going to hear a lot of oversimplified sloganeering during this election year.

Most of it will boil down to: more government programs versus tax cuts. Democrats will argue that the programs will help you and your family while the tax cuts will help "the rich." Republicans will argue back that the programs, however tempting, will lock in expanding government costs, thus further taxing "your money."

We hope citizens will take a closer look at the details. For instance:

Social Security

During much of President Clinton's first term, GOP lawmakers were bashed for pushing Social Security and Medicare funding reform. It will be ironic if they now risk further bashing by opposing Mr. Clinton's proposal to use federal budget surpluses to mend Medicare deficits due to start at the end of the next decade and Social Security deficits expected two decades later.

The president is right, if tardy. We must cushion the budget demands of the coming baby-boom retirement surge. Part of the solution will likely require delaying the age of Social Security and Medicare eligibility. But another need will be more money.

We have long advocated (and are pleased to see Alan Greenspan do the same) use of federal surpluses to reduce the national debt. That will shrink budget demands on all future taxpayers by reducing the big chunk of the budget spent on interest payments. It's a more decisive move than crowing that surpluses are earmarked for the two programs' trust funds.

Smoking and youth

Many Clinton proposals affecting children - day care, youth antismoking programs, smaller school classes - would be funded by the 25-year, $368-plus billion tobacco settlement now under debate.

That seems simple enough: A big flow of new billions over a quarter century to help educate the next generation. But, as we wrote yesterday, it doesn't make sense to grant tobacco firms immunity to future lawsuits by individuals just because state and federal governments will be paid off. Nor should tobacco giants get away with marketing to kids in other lands.

But if tobacco firms find themselves liable to lawsuits and sharply higher taxes on cigarettes, the huge 25-year revenue stream may be less certain. Congress must, then, think carefully about long-term funding for any new child programs it starts.

Tax cuts

For several years we have argued that tax cuts should await (1) a balanced budget and (2) Social Security/Medicare reform. The former is at hand. Let's see the latter begun before cutting taxes. But let's allow one exception. Congress should readjust tax rates to compensate for "bracket creep." That's the inexorable process by which wages rise to match inflation and thus push millions of Americans into higher tax brackets. Even in times of low inflation, that unfairness creeps on. It should be stopped.

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