An In-Bounds Budget

THIS was not a year for innovative budgetmaking. President Bush's plan for the fiscal year starting next October basically holds the line established by last fall's spending-limitations agreement with Congress. Its $1.45 trillion is the most ever requested by a president, but given the country's accustomed levels of public spending, and the huge extra bills now coming due, it's a restrained proposal. Last fall's agreement to put spending caps on broad categories of programs set the stage for this week's budget presentation. With that pact, the focus shifted from deficit-reduction targets - which spawned extraordinary efforts to mask the real size of the annual shortfall - to spending priorities within agreed-upon limits. Reason should be the beneficiary.

The president has chosen to point Pentagon spending slightly downward. The $295 billion proposed for fiscal 1992 represents a 1 percent decline from the previous year. Even with a war in progress, increased savings should be realized down the line from the scaling back of weaponry designed to defend Europe. Domestic urgencies demand that.

Those urgencies are given a nod in Bush's '92 budget. Early education, drug-abuse prevention, and a few other domestic programs would receive some increase. But these barely begin the work of addressing ingrained poverty in the nation's cities.

Bush's move to trim some of the burgeoning bill for Medicare will be resisted by Congress and lobbyists, but something had to be done to rein in the program. Congress has dozens of spending proposals up its sleeve, including some that will have broad public support - like increased veterans' benefits.

Congress, though, like the president, will have to exercise restraint in order to stay within the spending agreement. No one should want to bear the blame of breaking that discipline and hurling the nation into fiscal chaos.

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