Spinach before Dessert

February 26, 1993

Our thanks to Sen. David L. Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat, for observing that Congress at last seems ready to eat its spinach before it gets to dessert. For an institution he feels has the instilled eating habits of a five-year-old, this is a miraculous moment. It should be savored, nurtured, relished, preserved in amber unto eternity. For Carol Cox Wait, director of the Committee for a Responsible Budget, "this is the first time in living memory that Congress is not jumping up and down to spend money but actually seems to favor restraint."

This rare mood on the Hill is the result of a delayed reaction to President Clinton's economic plan. Though couched in tough, deficit-cutting rhetoric, it prescribed a sweetener at the beginning -- a $16.3 billion spending program that Ms. Wait describes as "one last binge before the diet begins."

Political strategists at the White House seemed to think the president needed a quick success to launch his administration. They were wrong.

Constituents demanding credible action against the deficit as a first order of business were heard from. So were freshmen Democrats closely attuned to sentiment in their districts. Then some conservative Democratic veterans waded in. Predictable Republican catcalls were hardly needed. Before the Clinton economic package was one week old, the go-go White House timetable was jettisoned. Instead of a quick vote on the spending proposals, the Democratic leadership put them off until Congress passes an overall budget resolution in April.

This is fine as far as it goes, but a budget resolution is only a blueprint for legislative action. What counts will be the spending cuts, the spending increases, the tax cuts and the tax increases that will be put into one big "reconciliation" bill later in the session. Until that materializes, Congress should enact only those parts of the $16.3 billion spending proposal that are needed urgently. In our view, this includes $1 billion for summer youth jobs, $300 million for children's immunization programs, $4 billion for unemployment benefits (already on the way to passage) and perhaps $500 million for Head Start. These items add up to only $5.8 billion. The remaining $10.5 billion in spending proposals should be folded into the reconciliation bill.

One other recommendation: Until Hillary Rodham Clinton's task force comes up with a formula for health care cost reforms in late Spring, the full budget picture will be far from complete. Deficits cannot be put on a continuous downward path until soaring medical entitlement programs are controlled. So we believe health care reforms, which will surely include significant tax hikes, should form an important part of a single reconciliation bill, even if final passage is delayed until summer. Notions of splitting the reconciliation baby in two should be discarded forthwith.

Washington has been mismanaging the nation's economy for years. If the massive accumulation of debt is to be whittled down, it matters little if a few more months are needed to do the job right.

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