When Washington politicians don't want to face hard budget choices, out come the accounting gimmicks.
Projections by both the White House and Congress forecast years of budget surpluses. But both assume they will stick to the spending caps set by a 1997 balanced-budget deal.
The president respects the cap - on paper - partly with unrealistic tax increases to pay for new spending. But he doesn't say how he'd pay for new proposals such as a Medicare prescription-drug benefit.
Republicans set themselves an equally tough task. They want to protect Social Security funds, reduce the debt, cut taxes $800 billion, increase defense spending, and still stay within the caps. In private, they admit it can't be done - that the caps demand politically impossible cuts in domestic programs.
Thus politicians turn to a recurring gimmick: Label spending that exceeds the caps as an "emergency."
For instance, House appropriators want to designate some $4.5 billion for the 2000 census as emergency spending. That would allow Congress to claim it has kept the budget caps while still spending the money.
Such fictions should stop. If this gimmickry goes on, the surplus will evaporate, the debt won't be reduced, and future generations will bear the burden of unsustainable entitlement programs.
GOP leaders should have the courage to either cut government spending enough to stay within the caps - our preference - or else revise them and explain why. Honesty in budgeting is an important part of fiscal discipline.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society