A Useful First Draft

The stage may be set for something Americans haven't seen in a number of years: relatively constructive negotiation over the national budget. While President Clinton's 1998 spending plan, unveiled last week, got a tepid reception on Capitol Hill, each of his previous budgets received an instant thumbs-down.

The administration's handiwork sets course toward deficit elimination in five years. But any number of factors could alter this spending chart: variations in the economy, shifts in the political winds, adjustments in government statistics. And critics are right to complain that the bulk of anticipated savings comes after the year 2000, when someone else will be at the helm.

Still, the president's budget is a hopeful starting point. Deficit slashes in 1990 and 1993, together with a strong economy pumping revenues, have greatly shrunk the deficit. Add in a certain amount of grim political determination, born of hard experience, and agreement appears at hand.

Before any final handshake, however, Mr. Clinton's budget script will undergo substantial revision. Among the key areas of bargaining:

Entitlements. The president's budget takes a cautious step toward reining in vast areas of automatic social spending. His proposal for reducing the rate of Medicare growth relies heavily on accounting gimmicks, shifting obligations around within the program's budget. The Republicans' insistence on boosting premiums for wealthier recipients should be heeded. And neither side has really come to terms with the demographic bursts that both Medicare and Social Security face early in the next century.

Tax cuts. A realistic deficit-reduction plan would defer any substantial cuts until balance is achieved. But political necessity dominates here. The president's limited cuts are preferable to the Republicans' across-the-board cuts.

Education increases. The president's call for investment in education is hard to argue with. But his priorities are questionable. Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, for one, rightly points out that increases might be better directed at the pre-school and elementary levels instead of at higher education, as in the Clinton plan.

Other areas, such as defense, will be examined in follow-up editorials. For now, we commend the general inclination toward budgetary discipline.

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