Balance the Budget First

CONGRESSMAN Kasich is wrong. The debate over whether to have a tax cut in the budget is far from over, contrary to what the chairman of the House Budget Committee said over the weekend. As long as John Kasich and other Republican leaders in Congress keep trying to wedge a large tax cut -- in his case, a $340 billion cut -- into the budget program, a chorus of critics will keep chanting that it makes no sense.

And they'll be right. A tax reduction of the magnitude envisioned in the House budget framework would undermine the central effort to reach a balanced federal budget and to bolster the country's long-term prosperity. More government borrowing might be needed to help finance such a cut, despite backers' claims that it will be paid for with spending reductions.

Somehow GOP budget seers have to find some $1.3 trillion in savings to carry out their plans to vanquish the deficit early in the next century. A big tax cut greatly clouds the vision, as Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici has indicated. He holds out the promise of a drop in taxes, but only after the budget is balanced.

Proponents of the tax cut assert its economic benefits, arguing that families will have more to save and businesses more to invest. But even the traditional GOP business constituency may find a capital gains cut less compelling than a genuine effort to tame the federal deficit.

The tax cut aside, another qualm about the Republican budget plans is their timing. Questions have arisen concerning the wisdom of trying to accomplish a balanced budget by the target year of 2002 -- whether the rapid cutting will deprive the federal government of its ability to respond to economic downturns with added stimulative spending.

That's a legitimate concern, but it may be premature. Congress is just beginning the process of actually deciding what will be spent in the years just ahead, and it's doubtful that the final budgetary product will adhere rigidly to Mr. Kasich's outline.

Many in Congress -- including some Republicans -- worry that deep cuts in education, training, and other ''investment'' programs are ill-advised. Many more recognize that putting huge chunks of the budget largely off the table -- entitlements like Medicare and Social Security and defense, for example -- also makes no sense.

The Republican plans may seem like a rush to deficit elimination, but the political balance in Congress is far from struck. There's little chance of a balanced budget arriving too quickly.

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