BOSTON. — Boston -- Building the $4 trillion federal debt was a bipartisan effort. Controlling it will be, too.
An innovative citizens' effort to add political muscle to the issue is off to a surprisingly strong start, with surprising supporters and opponents from both parties. Calling itself ''Lead . . . or Leave,'' the movement is asking candidates for federal office to pledge that they will not seek re-election after four years unless the annual deficit is cut in half by that time.
Seven members of Congress and many more challengers signed up in the first week after the drive was announced formally in Washington with the support of retiring Sen. Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, a Republican, and former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, a Democrat.
Demonstrating how bipartisan the issue has become, four of the seven incumbents are Democrats; three are Republicans.
In some places, the pledge is attracting conservative Republicans, as might be expected. In the New Hampshire Senate race, for instance, Gov. Judd Gregg and two other Republicans, businessman Hal Eckman and former legislator Jean White, signed up quickly. The most prominent Democrat, John Rauh, declined, saying through a spokesman that he didn't want to set a trap for himself that would depend on the actions of others.
In the 6th Congressional District of Massachusetts, neither of the two Republicans is buying. Although both Alexander Tennant and Peter Torkildsen favor deficit reduction, including a balanced-budget amendment, Mr. Tennant said he would take the pledge only if a Republican majority is elected to Congress this November.
Mr. Torkildsen envisioned the possibility that, if the pledge signers were mostly Republicans but the Democrats still controlled Congress, the Democrats would have an incentive to fall short of the target, forcing the Republicans out.
That argument was countered by Jon Cowan, one of the Lead . . . or Leave organizers in Washington. ''If that's what the Democrats do, it would totally backfire,'' he said, because voters would easily see through it.
Mr. Cowan said he hopes the effort stays bipartisan. Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Colorado, had taken the pledge, as had his two Democratic opponents. And the Democratic governor of Colorado, Roy Romer, announced earlier this month that federal deficit reduction would be the top priority of the National Governors' Association, of which he is the new chairman.
On the other hand, GOPAC, the political organization whose chairman is Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the Republican whip, put out a memorandum three weeks ago advising candidates to reject the pledge on the ground that ''deficit reduction will occur, of course, only if divided government is resolved in favor of the Republicans.''
This argument is ludicrous. The complicity of the Reagan and Bush administrations, as well as the Congress, in pushing the deficit to such shameful heights is beyond argument.
Two arguments against the pledge deserve more debate.
One is that the target is wrong, that some level of deficit is not harmful to the economy and that halving it so quickly would hurt people in ways the pledge does not contemplate.
This may be true, but the pledge does not talk of cutting the $4 trillion debt, only of reducing the deficit -- the annual amount, about $400 billion, by which the overall debt is increased. And it does not mandate program cuts. The deficit reduction could be achieved through tax increases (as Ross Perot contemplated) or efficiencies, as well as cuts.
The second argument is that the pledge is a gimmick, a heavy crowbar that seeks to make individuals responsible for collective action, or lack thereof.
Yet under the current system, individuals have not done the job. Powerful lobbies arguing the merits of thousands of programs have been more effective than any lobby arguing for deficit reduction.
Lead . . . or Leave is a gimmick, yes. But it is a potentially powerful one that seeks to build a constituency for deficit TTC reduction the old-fashioned way in a democracy -- through the voters, Democratic and Republican.
Robert L. Turner is a columnist for the Boston Globe.