Our leaders wrestle with reality; Washington: Congress and the White House are wasting a prime opportunity to invest in the future of the nation.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CONGRESS HAS failed once more to pass a budget. So its Republican leaders are headed into another high-stakes showdown with the president. Think of it as "budgetmania," an offshoot of "Wrestlemania": House Speaker Dennis "Dandy Denny" Hastert, an Illinois Republican, teams up with Majority Whip Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, a Texas Republican, to take on President Bill "Slick Willy" Clinton, the defending champion.

At stake, a $500 billion purse, give or take a few billion. Smoke, mirrors, posturing, lots of disguises, villains and heroes. At ringside, the inside operators lobby to make certain the performers produce a few specials for them, paying customers along the way.

With the economy humming, there seem to be no real losers in these melodramas, except, of course, the American people. They pay for the show. But they shouldn't be misled by the faux tableau of good vs. evil. What unites the combatants is far greater than anything that divides them.

For example, both GOP congressional leaders and the Democratic president strike disingenuous poses. Republicans trumpet tax breaks paid for by spending cuts they can't agree on. The president stands for more investment paid for with tobacco-tax increases he can't get. Both pledge to adhere to spending limits they have violated and to save the Social Security surplus, even as they raid it.

More strikingly, with prosperity producing a growing surplus, both the GOP Congress and the Democratic president project deep cuts in domestic programs, including funds for teachers and schools, for research and development, and for children. After almost two decades of austerity enforced by budget deficits, the leaders of both parties plan for yet another decade of harsh cuts. The president plans to hack off another 13 percent from current domestic spending by 2009, the Republicans an impossible 28 percent. Prosperity's bounty will go primarily to pay off part of the national debt.

The name-calling and arm-twisting distract from the reality of this bipartisan accord. In the midst of prosperity, the country's leaders are booting away the opportunity to begin making investments vital to our future.

It doesn't take much thought to know what these are. Clinton traveled to New Orleans recently to bring attention to a school with a leaky roof and buckling floors. He needn't have gone so far. One in every four school buildings is in need of "extensive repair or replacement," according to the General Accounting Office. The average age of public-school buildings is 42 years; 2.2 million new teachers are needed to meet the demand of rising school populations. Clinton sensibly chastises Republicans for cutting his pilot program for rebuilding schools, but he joins with them in planning to reduce federal education spending as a percentage of the economy over the next decade.

Transportation problems

Travel across the country. Our airports are perilously overcrowded, with air travel continuing to expand. Fast trains are a foreign concept. Mass transit is woefully inadequate. Interstate highways are in disrepair. One of every three bridges is rated "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete." Yet the GOP Congress and the Democratic president plan cuts in transportation budgets.

Three Americans die each day and 1 million fall sick each year from bad water. Drinking-water systems serving more than 50 million Americans don't meet national health standards. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly $140 billion will be required for water-system investments over the next 20 years. But environmental spending will have to be cut over the next decade.

Liberal economists generally make an economic argument against what Clinton called the "investment deficit." Billions are lost in traffic delays. The lack of skilled workers retards growth. Future markets will come from new discoveries. A healthy work force is a more productive one. Clearly, public investment is a central foundation for economic prosperity.

But the next decade of austerity projected by the GOP Congress and the Democratic president represents more than economic folly. For many Americans, it represents the breaking of a social compact, of a promise we make to each other.

By bipartisan accord, Washington pursues a global economic policy that generates rapid turnover and change. Workers are told they must prepare to have six or seven jobs in a lifetime. Some 500,000 manufacturing jobs were lost during the last 18 months of prosperity. Yet, by bipartisan default, Washington plans to invest less in training programs already in sorry shape.

By bipartisan accord, Washington requires poor, young mothers to work. Yet Washington is defaulting on its implicit promise of providing them with a safe and affordable place to care for their children. Young mothers scramble for jobs that do not pay enough to lift their families out of poverty or provide health insurance. For literally millions, the explicit pledge to "make work pay" is unfulfilled.

Democrats, new and old, and conservatives, compassionate or not, promise equal opportunity to all, regardless of race, class or religion. All would require kids to pass standardized achievement tests to move up in school. But if the standard is uniform, the schools aren't. The children of poor, working Americans of all races are going to overcrowded classrooms in dilapidated schools with teachers who lack the training they need. Public schools in affluent and poor neighborhoods are as "separate and unequal" as those deemed unconstitutional in the segregated South.

In previous decades, circumstances such as the Cold War and staggering deficits might explain, if not excuse, these broken promises. But now, this is not a question of wallet but of will. It's not a matter of circumstance but of character.

Public prefers investing

Ironically, the American people seem to get this far better than their leaders. Poll after poll shows that Americans prefer their leaders to use the surplus to invest in education or save Medicare rather than cut taxes. In 1992, when budget deficits were hitting new heights, Americans voted for an unknown governor from Arkansas who promised to invest in America and warned that we had to address both fiscal and investment deficits. In 1996, they re-elected him, in large part to punish the Newt Gingrich-led Congress for trying to cut Medicare, education and environmental funds to pay for tax cuts. Yet Clinton brags about using the surplus to pay off the national debt, while his budget forecloses any serious investment in unmet needs.

Does it matter? In this dot-com gilded age, promises come cheap. But as inequality grows, the broken compact is sowing a new bitterness in U.S. politics. If the economy slows, unemployment rises and poor mothers are thrown out of work, the populist anger at the broken promises will be evident. Already, there are signs. They can be measured in the general cynicism about a government that clearly serves the powerful and not the citizen. Or in the growing opposition to free-trade policies even in a time of prosperity.

As budgetmania continues in Washington, enjoy the show, hail the victors, mock the losers. But remember, we're applauding acting, not actions. At the end of the show, Washington's budget will be in surplus, but its leadership deficit will continue to grow.

Robert L. Borosage is a founder of the Campaign for America's Future. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

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