Bad budget choices

January 29, 2007

Last week's news that the federal budget deficit will be smaller than expected this year is roughly comparable to the crew of the Titanic learning the ocean liner is sinking more slowly than feared.

A dramatic rescue is nonetheless necessary to avoid disaster.

President Bush and the Democratic-led Congress now share the joint objective of balancing the budget by 2012. But that can't be done without retiring at least some of the president's tax cuts, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Mr. Bush's proposed defense buildup and the costs of the Iraq war make the task even harder.

What's more, 2012 arrives just as the oldest baby boomers reach retirement age and start drawing down the Social Security surplus now being used to finance other government spending. Medicare is already on a short trip to bankruptcy.

If ever there was a time when Americans needed talk of compromise in Washington to be more than empty political rhetoric, this is it. Some very hard choices need to be made, and the only way Mr. Bush or the lawmakers can make them is together.

Slightly more optimistic deficit figures released last week reflect recovery, at last, from the downturn six years ago along with some bookkeeping changes. But they don't alter the reality that the national debt is growing exponentially because so much federal spending must be borrowed.

The president told the nation in his State of the Union address he can balance the budget over the next five years without raising taxes. But few believe he can accomplish that even on paper without fudging the numbers, such as ignoring emergency war spending.

Democrats have no easy answers, either. Many support extending at least some of Mr. Bush's tax cuts when they expire in 2010, and there is bipartisan agreement on shielding middle-income Americans from the bite of the alternative minimum tax, which will automatically sock millions with huge tax increases unless the fix is made.

And Democrats are far less enthusiastic than Mr. Bush about curbing the cost of Social Security and Medicare, and will likely not support his plan to freeze spending on most domestic social programs.

The Senate budget committee chairman, Kent Conrad, wants to stiffen enforcement of tax laws in hopes of collecting some of the estimated $345 billion owed the federal government each year that doesn't get paid. But even if that effort were successful, it would be at best a small part of a solution that demands both more revenue and less spending.

Unlike the Titanic, though, the ship of state can be kept afloat if rescuers move quickly.

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