The Senate Budget Committee has set a reasonable course for federal spending. Its 1999 plan, reflecting the centrist views of Chairman Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, respects what might be called three beacons of sound fiscal thinking in the closing years of the 20th century:
* It takes seriously the landmark balanced budget agreement reached by Congress and the administration last year.
* It tempers the political reflexes that all too easily throw budgets out of whack. For Republicans, this means the lure of big tax cuts. For Democrats, it's expanded social spending.
* It views the remarkable prospect of a budget surplus not as an occasion to spend, or to reimburse it all back to the taxpayers, but as an opportunity to address the coming fiscal crunch in federal entitlements.
Nonetheless, the Domenici plan will not have smooth sailing. The administration has already attacked it as anti-family and children, since it excludes Clinton initiatives on child care and education.
Those initiatives have merit. It's doubtful that child-care availability is the nationwide crisis the administration portrays. But there's no doubt it's a crucial component of the ongoing welfare reform experiment. Mothers moving from welfare to work need temporary help in finding decent care for their children, and federal spending is appropriate here.
As for education, a $1.7 trillion budget along Domenici's lines leaves intact lots of federal help for the schools, and even boosts some areas, such as special education. But in this era of capped discretionary spending in Washington, much of the funding for substantial new programs in education - such as ambitious plans to reduce class sizes - will come from the states. Many of them are also anticipating budget surpluses.
Another source of sharp criticism for this middle-ground budget is Domenici's own party. Especially in the House, many Republicans want to wave a large tax cut as they head into this year's elections - not the paltry $30 billion envisioned by the Senate budgeteers (a mere $6 billion more than the president called for). That impulse should be thoughtfully resisted. A tax cut in the $60 billion-plus range favored by some in the House, and Senate, risks throwing askew the Domenici committee's careful effort.
Restraint is called for in some other areas too:
* The tobacco agreement windfall. First of all, it may not materialize. Too many of the administration's spending proposals were pinned to the billions assumed to be coming from this source. Domenici wants to devote any tobacco revenues to Medicare, which pays for a significant portion of tobacco-related health care. That makes sense logically, and it also shores up a demographically threatened entitlement program.
* Military spending. Pressure will mount from some Republicans to bust the budget here. There's no need to again exceed the Pentagon's own requests.
Domenici has struck a solid tone. Election-year politics could add dissonance. (The transportation bill overspending, politically driven, already poses an extra challenge for budget balancers.) Legislators with a good ear for balance, and for their constituents' appreciation of frugality, ought to prevail.