Whose Money (and Debt)?

A higher federal surplus: pay debt and lower taxes?

Anyone with a home mortgage who suddenly receives a big chunk of cash is tempted to pay down that weighty debt. But then they think twice: Are there better uses for my money?

That's just the kind of question that Congress and President Clinton should be debating as they dive into his proposal to pay off the national debt in 13 years.

The federal budget surplus (outside the Social Security system) is now projected to be more than $1.9 trillion, or twice as much as last year's projection.

It's fair to ask President Clinton - and his possible successor, Vice President Al Gore - if they really are just pushing this debt-reduction plan to head off a Republican drive for large tax cut.

Living free of red-ink debt is a noble idea. The US government hasn't done it since 1835. Why should we saddle future Americans with today's debts from programs that don't contribute to their quality of life?

The luxury of having higher tax revenues in a robust economy has turned politics upside down in Washington. A Democratic president is looking more fiscally conservative than many of his Republican rivals.

As a political move, the Clinton plan helps position Mr. Gore in a potential presidential race against a tax-cutting GOP rival.

But in coming months, the Republicans in Congress and the president can come to a compromise - well before the November election - that both reduces the debt and gives back money to taxpayers that is rightfully theirs.

Beyond that, of course, is the uncertainty of whether the projected revenue surplus will be there over the next decade if the economy doesn't clip along at the present 2 to 3 percent.

If a compromise can't be reached soon, it may be that the US should wait for a new president and a new Congress - and a possible shake-out in the economy this year - before designing a plan to reduce the nation's red ink.

Any delay in reaching a compromise only means that more debt is being reduced with the surplus at hand. That's all to the good while the voters make their choices for a new Congress and a new president.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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