Too little of the rhetoric and attack ads in this year's congressional races deal with the most important issue Congress will face over the next few years: what to do with the federal budget surplus.
The choices appear simple: Spend the surplus, or give it back to taxpayers in tax cuts, or use it to pay down the still-growing national debt.
But it's not so easy, because the current surplus exists only when Social Security trust funds, which the government borrows, are counted. Those funds will be needed to help underwrite any transition to a reformed retirement program. President Clinton is convening a White House conference to discuss Social Security Dec. 8 and 9.
In addition, the Medicare program continues headed towards bankruptcy in the next 10 years. Although last year's balanced-budget agreement bought some time, a long-term solution is needed, and now. A bipartisan commission on reforming Medicare is currently exploring options.
The next Congress will have to juggle a host of conflicting demands as it deals with these issues. They will best be met in a comprehensive package that balances the needs of both entitlement programs with tax-cut and spending proposals. The best time to do it is next year; 2000 will be consumed by election politics.
With that in mind, the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan, anti-deficit citizens' group, has developed a list of key questions for candidates. Each voter, of whatever political persuasion, should be concerned with candidates' answers to the questions, given here in condensed form:
* The Balanced Budget Act will require discretionary-spending cuts of 10 percent over the next four years. What cuts do you propose?
* What do you propose doing with the surplus - tax cuts? Spending programs?
* Do you support as part of Social Security reform raising payroll taxes, the amount of wages taxed, or the retirement age ?
* Should Social Security benefits be limited to those who really need them or should all who contribute continue to get benefits?
* Should individuals be able to save some of their Social Security tax in an individually owned account to get a better rate of return? What safeguards against risk should there be?
* What reforms would you recommend to the Medicare commission?
* What should be done to encourage Americans to save more, which would create more capital for economic growth?
The "correct" answers to these questions depend on one's own politics. But voters may want to think twice before supporting a candidate who hasn't thought them through.