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Political tax cuts endanger surpluses


RATHER than try to fix what's broken, Republicans in Congress seem fixated on gaining political advantage in November.

Look at the bill they concocted to deal with the so-called marriage penalty tax -- a problem that afflicts mainly well-off Americans. Republicans passed a hugely expensive bill -- $293 billion over 10 years -- that President Clinton rightly promises to veto.

That's on top of a Republican bill to repeal the estate tax -- another large break for the rich -- at a cost of $104 billion over 10 years and $850 billion over 20 years.

By the time you add it all up, this is a recipe for spending the surplus before it's even arrived.

If Republicans get their way, the next president would find himself in a serious budget hole.

He'd have no funds for new programs, a Medicare prescription drug program, a missile-defense plan or military actions overseas. Also, there would be no money for disaster relief or to increase any domestic program -- be it education, environmental cleanups or transportation.

As former congressional budget director Robert D. Reischauer noted, between the spending promises of the presidential candidates and the Republican-run Congress, we face a "breakdown of fiscal restraint."

That's dangerous. Remember, it was budgetary discipline that helped wipe out this nation's record deficit and create an era of unprecedented federal surpluses.

Are we going to ignore the hard-learned lessons of the past and embark on wild spending and tax-cut sprees?

No one is setting fiscal priorities. Instead, politicians are cynically trying to win the next election by giving away future surpluses.

Wouldn't it be better if leaders in Washington handled the country's most urgent needs first?

Fixing the Medicare and Social Security systems certainly should take precedence over tax cuts. So should a Medicare prescription drug plan.

In fact, a host of other priorities ought to be dealt with before we turn to major tax relief.

More targeted tax cuts make far more sense. That could include modifying the estate tax to help small businesses and farmers. It could also include less costly changes in the marriage penalty tax to give relief to millions of couples, but without giving away the federal treasury.

Budget surpluses should not be treated as political birthday toys.

If they are, it won't be long before deficits are looming once again.

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