Do-nothing Congress does one thing right

No tax cut: Gridlock preserves budget surplus for use in lowering the federal debt.

November 20, 1999

POLITICAL deadlock paid off for taxpayers as the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress struck a budget deal that led to final passage last night -- six weeks into the fiscal year.

Neither side inflicted much damage to the nation's strong fiscal position.

The two parties were so intent on making political points in advance of the 2000 elections that they left a huge surplus largely untouched.

So now the Treasury can do the prudent thing with that unspent surplus -- pay down the federal debt held by the public.

In the long term, this is superb fiscal policy. Lowering the public debt saves billions on interest payments, increases private savings, encourages more private spending and fortifies Washington's ability to deal with a looming Social Security shortfall.

By next October, public debt will have been reduced by $200 billion in just three years. If this continues, Washington's IOUs will shrivel from today's $3.6 trillion to $865 billion in 2009. The savings in lower interest payments: a whopping $250 billion.

Republicans, more than Democrats, ended the congressional year with few gains. They held budget spending down, but were blanked on their biggest goal: approving an $800 billion tax cut.

But Democrats didn't get their top priority, either: big new spending programs.

Still, President Clinton came away with plenty to take to voters: money to help schools hire more teachers; more funds for college scholarships, special education and Head Start; nearly $1 billion to pay off this country's shameful unpaid bills to the United Nations; and money for more police officers.

For a president who faced impeachment in the spring, 1999 turned out to be a year of remarkable resiliency. The 106th Congress will go into the books as a "do-nothing" session. Major domestic problems got pushed aside: preserving Medicare and Social Security; gun control; rising discontent with the nation's health-care setup; an out-of-control campaign fund-raising system.

Next year's Congress isn't likely to tackle tough questions, either. But as long as the debt repayment program persists, doing nothing may be the best we can expect from those fiercely partisan gangs on Capitol Hill.

Pub Date: 11/20/99

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