The budget crisis: 2002 but 2020 Cop out: Washington uses short-term accord to obscure long-range problems

February 24, 1997

DESPITE HAPPY TALK about balancing the budget by 2002, the nation's fiscal outlook remains a lot grimmer than most incumbent politicians want voters to think. Listen to a real deficit hawk, Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.: "I'm fearful that we will see an agreement that allows the president to have a pleasant two years and allows the Congress to get re-elected."

Exactly.

Although important gaps remain between Democratic and Republican proposals for getting to zero in five years, the real problem is not 2002. It is 2020. After that, unless politicians stop -- ducking in the interim, the nation's debt will explode due to an aging population with far fewer working-age people to support it.

So far, there is no evidence that President Clinton is willing to face up to this exceptionally serious long-range prospect. Even though he is supposed to be worrying about his legacy in the history books, his budget for fiscal 1998 is only marginally more credible than the dead-on-arrival budgets he sent up in earlier years.

He sidesteps entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) that will grow exponentially after 2002. He proposes tax cuts when the gutsy course would be to make them contingent on further deficit reduction. He trumpets increased spending on education and other good things while delaying most offsetting spending cuts until after he has left office.

The Republicans as a group are not much better. While they profess obeisance to Congressional Budget Office forecasts that are a lot less rosy than White House estimates, they also promote tax cuts twice as large as what the president has in mind. This attitude goaded House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich to warn that "if our [GOP] people, in an effort to get more tax cuts, want to fudge the numbers and pick a more economic scenario, I am not going to go for it."

It will be up to Republicans like Messrs. Kasich and Shays and "Blue Dog" Democrats who are against any tax cuts whatsoever to make Congress go for long-range structural changes rather than short-term fixes. Don't count on it. The White House and the Republican leadership are so eagerly focused on a $50 billion gap in their five-year projections, which is really peanuts for a government spending $1.7 trillion a year, that they would prefer to ignore the burdens they are leaving to posterity.

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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