Toward a balanced budget

March 10, 1995

Defeat of the Balanced Budget Amendment last week is just one early round in a tax-and-spend struggle on Capitol Hill that in its 1995 version probably will not end until just before Christmas Eve. For every Congress, the passage of 13 major appropriations bills and the revenue measures required to finance them is XTC always a burden. It will be more so this year because of the radical nature of the House Republican "Contract with America" and the vigorous response it is drawing from most Democrats and a few GOP senators.

Although the budget has a bottom line of dollars and cents, it really reflects the key policy decisions of our government of checks and balances. Tax laws are loaded with incentives and disincentives that determine how citizens manage their own businesses and finances. Appropriations determine where limited resources will be spent. The size of the deficit, in its starkest terms, represents to what extent this generation will pass on its debts to its children and grandchildren.

The Newt Gingrich revolution, although its author would not describe it this way, is really a revolt against a plunge into red-ink financing that began with the borrow-and-spend Reagan administration and continues right through a second Clinton budget that projects $200-billion plus deficits, year after year, for just about as long as most present incumbents can cling to office.

This cannot go on. That said, critics of the amendment knew it was more an exercise in promising to cut the deficit rather than actually doing it. So now that the amendment has been put aside, Congress will have to start making the tough spending decisions needed to put the nation on a sound fiscal path.

The House Republicans have made an impressive beginning with a massive $17.3 billion attempt to reduce spending approved last year when Democrats controlled Congress. But the far bigger task is to take the budget President Clinton offered six weeks ago and crunch it down to a size where a glide path to budget balance by 2002 can actually take shape. This will be painful for millions of Americans. It will require the abandonment or postponment of hundreds of worthy projects. It will test this nation's willingness to protect the most vulnerable of its people and its readiness to challenge the self-interests of the powerful.

But the spending cuts must proceed. And they must proceed in a context where they are not diluted by tax cuts that make no economic sense. The rival tax reduction plans put forward by the Gingrich Republicans and President Clinton should both be rejected. "Spending cuts, yes; tax cuts, no." This should be the rallying cry of legislators, regardless of party, who are sincerely interested in balancing the budget.

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