The Deficit Gridlock

CAROL COX WAIT

June 21, 1993|By CAROL COX WAIT

The Clinton administration and Democratic congressional leaders are suffering from ''Mother, I'd rather do it myself!'' syndrome. They seem determined to pass whatever deficit reduction program they can, all by themselves.

Never mind that they could put together a better program with some support from the ''other party.'' Chafing after 12 years of Republican presidents, Democrats are loathe to compromise at all with their colleagues across the aisle.

Republicans make matters worse by pretending they can solve the nation's deficit and debt problems without raising any taxes. The Republicans' single-minded focus on bashing the president's program and poo-pooing any need for new government revenues makes Democratic partisanship look almost reasonable.

Both sides need to ''lighten up'' and ''be serious,'' in our children's vernacular, lest the economic debate this year end in disappointment, even disaster. In Pogo's immortal words: ''We have met the enemy, and it is us.''

Republicans would have us believe that we can balance the budget merely by slowing the growth in federal spending enough so that nobody notices the difference. Since we would not really cut spending, nobody would much mind, right? Balder--!

The Democrats, meanwhile, are selling ''tax the rich'' -- as if we could raise taxes on the rich enough to solve the country's deficit problem. Indeed, one problem with the Clinton plan and both congressional alternatives may be that their aggressive pursuit of ''tax fairness'' could make it hard to raise taxes on the rich again as part of the next big deficit reduction initiative.

Unless we change course dramatically -- and soon -- the country will be right back in the same old spot, and there will be another large deficit reduction initiative just over the horizon.

The debate does not have to continue this way. The projection of level deficits over the next few years offers a major window of opportunity. Voters are ready for change. The potential sacrifices required by any plan are smaller today than they will be if we wait until the present deficit level begins to accelerate.

If our leaders would level with the American people, explain clearly that we cannot have something for nothing and provide political cover for one another, we could enact a program that really would solve the budget deficit problem and put the United States on a path toward continued world leadership in the 21st century.

But two essential elements are conspicuously absent: candor and bipartisanship. The budget deficit problem cries out for a bipartisan solution. Neither political party can or will do what must be done on a straight party-line vote. Partisanship exposes everybody to maximum political danger. And politicians are very risk averse.

If the deficit debate ends as it began this year, blue smoke and mirrors will drive out the real, hard choices. The unraveling process has already begun. On Thursday the Senate spent the ''savings'' from repealing the tax deduction for lobbying expenses twice: once to pay for campaign finance reform and again to meet the Finance Committee's reconciliation instruction.

Unwilling to stop the back door federalization of Medicaid through skyrocketing outlays for ''disproportionate shares'' and ''state provider taxes,'' unwilling to charge upper-income beneficiaries more for Medicare, unwilling to cap the growth in entitlement spending, the Senate Finance Committee decided to take another $20 billion out of the hides of ''greedy doctors and hospitals.''

The committee's plan asks less of upper-income social security beneficiaries than the president's program. It adopted a familiar budget gimmick, extending some popular tax expenditures only temporarily. That makes the bill ''cost less'' or ''save more,'' though everybody expects those provisions to be extended again.

Meanwhile, the committee's transportation tax initiative is either too big or too small. It is too little to adequately serve deficit reduction, environmental and conservation goals, and it is too big for those who believe it will hurt them.

We are witnessing the unraveling of another deficit reduction initiative. We are watching the will to act erode. We keep avoiding the politically difficult. Soft savings replace hard choices. The bad drives out the good.

This will only put off the day when we finally confront the choices our government must make. In the meantime, however, the enormous existing reservoir of anger and cynicism about our government and its political institutions grows deeper. That will make the task even more difficult. And we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Carol Cox Wait is president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan citizen advocacy group.

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