ROBERT REISCHAUER, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office who is respected by both parties, says the current budget battle between President Clinton and the Republican Congress is "really child's play" compared to what government has to do to prevent a deficit explosion after 2020. With the number of senior citizens drawing Social Security and Medicare set to skyrocket, he contends that each year the nation delays fundamental change will only increase the dangers ahead.
Mr. Reischauer's dispassionate analysis punctures the political rhetoric now heard in Washington. It shows how foolhardy is the Republican attempt to cut taxes a whopping $245 billion over the next seven years when the need is to bolster the revenue base. And it exposes the hypocrisy of Democratic efforts to pare down proposed GOP cuts in entitlement programs -- cuts that have to be regarded as minimal in light of the nation's demographic trends.
President Clinton's third budget of the year shows to what a remarkable extent he has lost the fiscal initiative to his political opponents. His January budget was nothing but a joke projecting $200 billion deficits from here to infinity. By June he accepted the concept of a "balanced budget" within 10 years. His latest twist accepts GOP demands for the end of deficit financing by the close of a seven-year cycle. The third Clinton budget can best be described as "Gingrich Lite."
Speaker Newt Gingrich deserves some credit for taking the political risk of trying to crunch down such popular budget-busting programs as Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, veterans benefits and farm subsidies. In so doing, he has forced the president, ever the halfway kid, to give ground inch by inch.
The White House proclaims, however, that Mr. Clinton is holding true to his priorities -- including Medicare, Medicaid, environment, education and a smaller (though unneeded) $98 billion tax cut -- while whacking away at less popular programs. That stance is not only good politics, it makes the point that excessive GOP tax cuts are forcing the Republicans to reduce social programs much more than need be.
Such a line would be persuasive were it not for the Reischauer thesis. For if the Republicans are merely engaged in "child play" in attacking the deficit crisis, the Democrats have barely made it into the neonatal intensive care unit. The two parties may now have reduced their budget differences to $500 billion, but both are many more billions off the pace of fiscal adjustments needed for the years ahead.