The Beltway as Sumo Ring

In the current budget dispute, Congress and President Clinton are like two sumo wrestlers trying to push each other out of the ring. The loser gets the blame for "raiding" the Social Security trust fund.

At the same time, both Democrats and the GOP have made budget proposals that, if enacted, would spend a bit of the Social Security surplus in the new fiscal year that began Friday.

So what's going on? The match began with both Hill Republicans and the president insisting they would stick by the increasingly tight budget caps agreed to in the 1997 balanced-budget agreement. They also promised not to borrow any Social Security revenue and spend it on other budget items, as has been done every year since the late 1960s.

Given the spending on programs that the two sides want, these goals could be met only if Congress and the White House agree on equivalent cuts elsewhere. That's even more difficult since Congress has already spent the $14 billion non-Social Security surplus for 2000 on "emergency" spending packages that evade the caps.

There are plenty of candidates for trims, but the political will to cut is sadly AWOL.

So both sides are in the sumo ring, frantically trying gimmicks to wriggle out of the other's grasp. Republicans would use "advance funding" so some education and other money would count against fiscal year 2001 instead of 2000. They'd declare other spending to be an "emergency" even though it isn't really. And they suggested stretching out Earned Income Tax Credit payments to the poor over 12 months instead of a lump-sum check, an idea quickly shot down.

Those steps could technically get Republicans under the budget caps while allowing them to say they hadn't spent any Social Security money. But a day of reckoning would come later.

The president has his own political gimmick: his proposed tax increases. There's no way Republicans will agree to those, especially after Mr. Clinton deep-sixed their cherished $800-billion-over-10-year tax cut.

If the two sides aren't going to make the sensible spending cuts or raise taxes, they should negotiate new spending caps that are politically more realistic, dip into the Social Security surplus a bit if they must for one year, and explain why.

If they're going to spend the money anyway, Democrats and Republicans need to throw away the gimmicks and give Americans an honest accounting of their tax dollars. It's time for the president and the Republicans to stop wrestling and figure out how to walk out of the ring together.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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