Keeping close watch over surging surplus

A challenge: The president and Congress must remember the prudence that has yielded trillions.

June 30, 1999

PRESIDENT Clinton justifiably claims credit for the "fiscal discipline" that has brought the nation to a moment of remarkable prosperity. Along with the vibrant economy, carefully managed tax increases and spending cuts will put the nation's checkbook well into the black.

Economists suggest the run of good times could last another 15 years, give or take, producing a cumulative surplus of $1 trillion. The publicly held portion of the national debt could be erased by 2015 -- which seems like the fiscal equivalent of finding a cure for cancer.

An atmosphere of disbelief is difficult to dispel. So it is comforting to find these experts doubting and re-examining their data -- even as they confirm their findings. At the same time, they qualify everything.

A surging economy drives volatility into the projections: In the past five months, the surplus forecasted for this fiscal year has been adjusted upward to $99 billion -- $20 billion higher than predicted last February.

The numbers must be viewed with as much caution as joy.

If the budget figures so confidently presented last winter are suddenly off by 20 percent, how can anyone be confident in projections made for 15 years?

Independent sources confirm the positive trends, but one might be forgiven for imagining the long-range projections are meant to support political agendas: Mr. Clinton's hopes for a solid and solvent Social Security system, for example, need the sort of sustained revenue stream promised by this week's figures.

The imprecision of the forecaster's art and the hunger of political leaders for legacy constitute a potentially volatile chemistry. Worthy -- and costly -- projects are easily found:

The nation's retirement system must be saved. Few would oppose a stronger Medicare program. And everyone wants tax relief of some sort. Mr. Clinton has promised to work with GOP leaders in Congress to achieve these goals. But can all of them be within reach? Before making commitments that will roll on long past 2015, Mr. Clinton and Congress might want to see more projections borne out over time.

They should cling ever more tightly to policies of fiscal discipline and restraint that brought us to this dizzying moment.

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