Even President Clinton concedes the massive deficit-restraint bill passed by the House last evening is a better piece of legislation than what he offered. It adds "some discipline," he says. It will "force us every year to make the budget cuts that we say we're making."
Any celebrations, however, should be put on hold. While this appears to be the first serious attempt to make the president and Congress account for the kind of entitlement overspending that has helped quadruple the national debt in just over a decade, the proof will lie in how fiscal management plays out in the years ahead.
The American people heard similar claims that the deficit had been brought to heel during the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings fiasco of the Reagan years and the 1990 budget agreement of the Bush era. Yet in each instance, the Washington establishment lacked the courage to put the brakes on popular benefits programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans subsidies and farm benefits. As a result, national indebtedness leaped ahead year after year after year.
This time it appeared the Clinton administration was heading down the same dismal road. While the new president talked a good game, he offered none of the "discipline" on entitlement spending he now admits is needed. Fortunately, conservative Democrats demanded mandatory, self-enforcing caps on benefits spending as their price for supporting the president's economic plan. The White House complained bitterly when it wasn't otherwise engaged in its own screw-ups. But in the end, both sides worked out a compromise that is far from perfect but better than what might have been.
Under the compromise, mandatory spending caps again will be avoided. But if in any one year spending exceeds limits set in budget resolutions for any reason other than the number of people served, the president and Congress have to make up the overage in the following year. They can do so by raising taxes, cutting spending or borrowing -- all out front.
One of the potential loopholes for evading this discipline rests in the enduring power of the House Rules Committee to waive any provisions in existing law it wishes. But if the House entitlement formula is adopted into law, or something similar and perhaps better comes from the Senate, there would indeed be greater restraints.
The battle over Mr. Clinton's landmark program is not over. In the Senate there will be an attempt to scrap or alter his proposed energy tax, with its five-year revenue potential of $71.5 billion.
Citizens concerned over a nation wallowing in debt should insist that any Senate change should result in tax revenues of similar volume. If that turns out to be the case, the budget may at last be brought to heel. But don't count on it. As Mr. Clinton himself acknowledged, there must be some assurance "that if we tell the people we're going to make the cuts, we'll do it."