Deficit politics

In many respects House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski is a politician's politician. Seasoned as he is in the rough-and-tumble of Chicago politics, Mr. Rostenkowski has developed a quick feel for what is - and is not - politically feasible. Democratic lawmaker Rostenkowski also represents one additional trait of that Midwest political tradition, the ability to hammer together a legislative package when action is finally essential and compromise becomes the order of the day.

All of this comes to thought in regard to Representative Rostenkowski's proposals to find additional tax revenues to help ward off the massive budget deficits now projected for the next few years. Among other steps, Mr. Rostenkowski (who is close to House Speaker Tip O'Neill) would leave in place the final 10 percent individual tax cut scheduled for July.

But at the same time he is proposing that a number of future tax cuts (that will take effect in 1985) - including indexing for inflation, and cuts involving estates, tobacco, and telephones - be eliminated. Repealing or delaying such cuts, he reckons, could produce an additional $129 billion in revenues between 1985 and 1988. It is noteworthy that Treasury Secretary Regan and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dole - although rejecting the idea of scrapping indexing - did not dismiss the rest of Mr. Rostenkowski's proposals out of hand. Senator Dole even observed that some of the proposals were ''sound.''

The Rostenkowski proposals, of course, represent only one step in what will likely be a difficult process of avoiding future budget deficits estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Although they are only ''scissors-and-paste'' types of steps - in other words, representing a few tax dollars gained here, a few revenue losses saved there - they indicate the type of constructive and responsible bipartisan approach that is necessary if future US budgets are to be brought under control. Nor do they preclude consideration of the deeper reform of the tax system that is still necessary in the long run - such as simplification of the tax code and reduction of ''tax expenditures.'' But as starting points in the current debate, they would seem to be far more realistic than, for example, the administration's plan to raise revenue through a standby tax to take effect in 1985.

So far as leaving July's 10 percent tax cut alone, Mr. Rostenkowski is surely on target. He concedes that he does not have the votes for repeal. Beyond that, the cut should help stimulate the economy as the US comes out of recession this year.

Mr. Rostenkowski has entered the great tax debate of 1983 with a measured approach. The nation can only benefit if the debate - and search for ways of reducing future deficits - continues in as constructive and basically conciliatory a tone.

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