ONE wishes that Sen. Warren Rudman had decided to stay in the Senate and to keep prodding for institutional change, rather than exit in frustration. Nonetheless, the New Hampshire Republican's comments in announcing his retirement from elective office were a service of a kind.
The central problem, in his view, is an unwillingness of people to face up to difficult decisions. This is as true of the executive branch as the legislative, he said, and it extends even to the body politic - voters themselves.
The overriding tough decision confronting the United States, Rudman contended, is deficit control. That has been the senator's preoccupation since he joined the Senate more than 11 years ago; he helped create the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction law that promised to eliminate Washington's flood of red ink by a target date in the '90s.
The promise, however, was short-lived. The pressures to spend triumphed over concerns about how ruinous an uncontrolled deficit could be, and Gramm-Rudman-Hollings was dismantled.
The budget agreement now in place purports to put limits on federal spending. But the deficits projected under that agreement are in the hundreds of billions as far ahead as anyone cares to look. This year, for the first time in a decade, the president didn't even bother to mention a plan to eliminate the deficit.
The great culprit here, says Rudman, is billowing entitlements spending. He foresees spending on Medicare, Social Security, and the like squeezing the government's discretionary spending - on things like education and highways - down to 5 percent of the budget by 1997. If people wonder why government doesn't take more initiative now, what will they say then?
In perhaps his most poignant criticism, the senator suggests people should be focusing more criticism on themselves. If Americans generally - particularly the relatively well-off - weren't so attached to the idea of receiving government retirement money or health insurance with no testing of their needs for such help, those in Congress might be able to address the entitlements issue without fear for their political lives.
But they should do so anyway, if principle means more than short-term survival in politics. The do-nothing-and-keep-your-seat approach will gradually eat away the country's ability to invest in its own future, as interest on the deficit absorbs every spare dollar.
We hope that Senator Rudman's belief that one is elected to make the hard decisions, not avoid them, survives in Congress despite his departure.