The Buck Starts Here

He's neither a Reagan nor a Clinton.

In fact, in his first federal budget plan, George W. Bush showed he can walk a finessing line between competing concepts of Washington's role in shaping America.

The new president decided to ignore the old hard-line Republican demand for wholesale budget cuts, while bucking a recent trend in Congress to raise federal spending by two or three times the rate of inflation every year (Bush's mantra: hold it to 4 percent).

In this surreal time of surpluses, in which old spendthrifts morph into spenders and neo-New Dealers talk of debt reduction, the president chose a lean-and-clean budget of moderate increases that assumes tax-revenue surpluses aren't just booty that spilled over the transom, destined to be doled out like lottery winnings.

Having already made headway with Democrats that the income-tax take should not remain at its record high (10.4 percent of GDP), Bush's budget is really a "Here-I-stand" warning of how much he will wield his veto pen against any high-rolling spending bills sent down Pennsylvania Avenue.

His particular spending priorities and cuts may not survive in Congress, but his all-things-in-moderation limits on overall spending should.

Bush's fellow Republicans, who barely rule in both houses of Congress, may be the most difficult to persuade to maintain the 4 percent line. Their old fiscal restraint has been strained by the surpluses and all the voices back home demanding more federal assistance.

The president should sit down soon with Midwest Republicans, for instance, to help them resist pressure from the agricultural lobby to override Bush's spending targets. He'll need to do the same with Democrats to avoid their demands to spend more money on education - beyond the hefty 11.5 percent increase Bush proposes.

President's budgets often don't tell the whole story, and Bush's lives up to that by not including an anticipated rise in military spending that awaits his review of defense strategy.

Bush's individual spending proposals will suffer all the usual slings and arrows from special interests wanting more.

But in aiming at a modest increase of 4 percent, Bush hit a bull's-eye.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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