Dessert, Yes, but Later

What would their mothers think? Both President Clinton and many GOP congressional conservatives want to eat dessert now and leave much of the broccoli chewing to some other politicians after the turn of the millennium.

That's about what the budget negotiations between the White House and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill indicate so far.

For dessert, both the GOP leaders and the president want their respective tax cuts, which would take well over a hundred billion of revenue dollars out of play between now and 2002, when everyone agrees the budget should be balanced. The Clinton tax cuts would cost less than the Republican cuts. But the administration wants to spend money on its education plans and on restoring some cuts in welfare spending it signed on to before the election.

But, mommy, as soon as we finish dessert we'll think about eating the broccoli.

Both sides heavily backload their balancing efforts, showing big deficit cuts in the years 2001 and 2002. (That's two congresses and one president hence.)

Further, GOP planners now lean toward the administration's rosier economic forecasts. There's logic to that shift. The consistently growing US economy may, just may, produce a deficit $15 billion smaller than projected this year. That would occur because of higher tax revenues and lower joblessness costs.

Republican leaders argue that the best way to sustain - and expand - the growing economy is to cut taxes further now to stimulate investment, productivity, jobs, and eventually tax revenues.

Democrats generally agree with the president's formula: spend on education to provide more work-force productivity in future. And subsidize job training, and perhaps even subsidize entry level jobs to put welfare recipients to work.

We have urged, for two years, that balancing the budget should come first, then selective tax cutting. In that we agree with Newt Gingrich's bluntness of last month (when he said just that), not his recent fudging. We believe Mr. Clinton (and many Republicans) engage in wishful thinking when they say that suddenly, in the first two years of the next century, politicians will become disciplined Spartans.

Are we against sensible education and safety net repairs? No. Are we against careful tax cuts? No. Do we believe budgets must always be balanced? No.

But, whether you are a Keynesian or a supply sider, you should not allow grievous lack of budget discipline - with no budget balanced for nearly a third of century, even during boom years. Nor should you allow such lack of discipline when faced with clear knowledge that Medicare is fast heading for demographic shoals and Social Security will encounter demographic problems in about 15 years.

Other budget cuts can be found to permit education improvement plans and help business provide job training for people struggling off welfare. Cuts can be made, for instance, in inefficient areas of the commerce, energy, and veterans departments.

More fundamentally, it's time for the president to pick up Senate majority leader Trent Lott's offer of a final blue ribbon commission to recommend changes in inflation indexing. That remains a question of national honesty - as well as the best long-range solution to coming Medicare and Social Security imbalances.

The world's best-adapting large economy will certainly provide ingredients for dessert. But Washington has to bite into a few tough courses first.

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