1998 To-Do List

Gulf War 1-1/2 is off for now. The Lewinsky et al. case is in the hands of more lawyers than Brooks Brothers stocks ties for. And Congress is back in the spotlight.

It's an election year. It's a budget surplus year. So what should Congress have on its to-do list?

So far, President Clinton's agenda, set forth in his State of the Union speech, holds center stage. As we said at the time, he and his pollsters deserve credit for grasping some of the serious concerns of Americans - about pensions, health costs, child care, and education. That this agenda hit the right buttons was evident in: (1) GOP hesitance to attack the proposals too frontally; (2) Clinton's high poll ratings despite the ethics and morality questions hanging over him.

But White House solutions for coming Medicare and Social Security funding problems, day care costs, and low-quality schools seem impractical. So there is room for Congress to improve on each. For example:

Social Security and Medicare. Mr. Clinton warned that not a dollar of federal surpluses should go for anything but saving Social Security. But, read the fine print and you see surpluses going to fund new administration spending. One addition - enrolling age 55-to-64 citizens in Medicare - appears certain to demand large subsidies in future years because of again-rising medical costs. In effect, tobacco-settlement billions would be earmarked to rescue Medicare and Social Security. But Congress ought to allot any tobacco deal revenues to programs to shrink tobacco use and reimburse Medicaid. And that means declining tobacco revenue in future.

Child care. It's not just parents using outside day care that face this need. So Congress ought to consider a standard tax credit for those with children up to age 6, whether care is provided in the home or out.

Minimum wage. Economists are probably right. It's too soon after the last rise to order another without causing job loss for the least skilled members of society. That will dent state welfare-to-work efforts. But nevertheless a modest rise, perhaps equal to a year's inflation, might be considered.

Campaign funding. Lawmakers would face less temptation to slant legislation if Congress restricted the influence-buying effect of ballooning "soft money" donations. Some are concerned the Supreme Court would find any restriction unconstitutional. Time to try it and see.

We'll turn to other major matters - like International Monetary Fund refinancing and presidential trade authority - in a later editorial. This is enough for one to-do list.

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