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Deficit dangers start getting attention

In year 12 of the Great Splurge, the era of rampant, runaway, ruinous federal borrowing and spending, it has suddenly become necessary for politicians to tip their hats to fiscal discipline.

Ross Perot has a five-year plan for eliminating the red ink, described in a volume that has become an implausible paperback bestseller. George Bush and Bill Clinton have published their own, competing economic blueprints.

Last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a 30-year-old Washington think tank, departed from its global agenda to present a prescription for budget-balancing that was endorsed by a wide spectrum of political and private-sector leaders.

The CSIS project's co-chairmen are Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Nunn, a Pentagon expert, knows that the threat to America's world position now lies here at home _ in the staggering burden of debt, yes, but also in inadequate education and training systems, debilitated public works, and a tax code that encourages consumption over investment.

The cumulative impact of all this, I hope and believe, is a growing public recognition of the size and scope of the recovery task. We have dug ourselves into a very deep hole by letting the debt grow from $1-trillion to $4-trillion in barely more than a decade, and no small measures will get us back. Hard cuts and higher taxes will be required.

It may well be that the current economy is too weak to swallow such drastic medicine, as many critics of the Perot plan argue and as Nunn and Domenici concede.

But it is equally true that the commitment to action cannot be postponed. The newly elected (or re-elected) president and Congress must not be allowed to go through 1993 without setting down a binding blueprint for bringing the runaway deficits under control.

Gimmicks will not do it. The Nunn-Domenici panel says that nearly $2-trillion in spending cuts and tax increases are needed if the budget is to be balanced and the integrity of the Social Security trust fund restored by 2002.

The words are blunt. "A constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget . . . would not cut $1 of spending or raise $1 of revenue. . . . Congress and the administration would still have to make hard choices on how to achieve balance."

The line-item veto, though supported by Bush, Clinton and Perot, is also not a "strategy to balance the budget," the Nunn-Domenici report says. "Most experts agree that a president is not likely to trim much more than 2 percent of discretionary program funding each year.

Similar problems can be found in other "silver bullet" solutions. Tougher tax collection policies, sunset laws to require periodic reauthorization of existing programs, elimination of "waste, fraud and abuse" and other easy-sounding remedies promise more than they can achieve. The two rounds of military base closings that have been ordered "represent the most significant recent attempt to save money by eliminating "waste,' " the CSIS report says, but "will save less than $10-billion over 10 years."

The message is getting home: We can't ignore the problem because it is literally eating up our future. We can't gimmick our way out of it. More and more politicians are ready to acknowledge it, and I think Perot is right in saying that Americans are more willing to accept "fair, shared sacrifice" than the cynics think.

Washington Post Writers Group