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Cynicism about politics has returned

The latest New York Times-CBS News poll, released last week, confirms that public cynicism about politics has returned to its pre-Sept. 11 levels. Asked the standard question about how often they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right, fewer than four out of 10 said they could rely on it always or most of the time.

The question refers to the government in general, not to the Bush administration. But when these same people were asked about President Bush's account of his past dealings as a director of the Harken Energy Corp., only one out of six found his words entirely truthful. As for Vice President Dick Cheney and the accounting methods of Halliburton Co., the company he headed before he became Bush's running mate, only one out of nine thinks his words are truthful.

None of these findings is healthy at a time when confidence in business and the stock markets has been badly shaken _ a time when the public looks to Washington for reassurance that jobs and savings and investments are safe.

But as Robert Rubin, the former Clinton administration secretary of treasury, whose judgment and integrity are praised by Republicans and Democrats alike, has said, Washington's policing of corporate behavior is less important than its willingness to put its own fiscal house in order.

In an article published Sunday by the Washington Post, Rubin said the starting point for Washington must be _ once again _ to get control of the budget. He noted that virtually the entire $5.6-trillion, 10-year surplus projected when Bush came to office has disappeared. Gone too, he said, is the spending discipline Congress and the administration imposed on themselves in the 1990s _ the policy that produced these rare surpluses. "In my view," Rubin wrote, "we need to restore the sound, broad-based strategy that was so central to the prosperity of the '90s."

If you believe the Bush administration, that can be done easily and quickly. The midyear budget review that acknowledged the prospect of a $165-billion deficit this year forecast a return to balanced budgets as soon as fiscal 2005.

The economic and revenue assumptions behind that forecast are as fanciful as some of the accounting practices that have sent Wall Street into a spin. Sen. George Voinovich, the plainspoken Ohio Republican, was much more realistic when he told his colleagues last week, "The country's finances are in dire condition. We face a sea of red ink as far as the eye can see. . . . We are on the edge of an abyss and we must stop before we commit fiscal suicide."

Voinovich's focus was on the spending side of the budget. He decried the farm bill, which Congress passed and the president signed, despite its 10-year, $80-billion increase in subsidies. He said bluntly that if Bush wants Congress to stay within the spending limit he has set for this year, then some of the $45-billion extra the president has asked for the Pentagon budget must be shifted "to the domestic area in order to meet legitimate domestic needs."

But the overriding question _ the one that dwarfs everything else _ is what to do about the huge tax cut that Bush pushed through Congress, back when those mythical budget surpluses were still clouding most people's vision.

That tax cut will cost the Treasury $1.7-trillion, including debt service, in the first decade. But because most of it was back-ended to the years between 2006 and 2010, it can be recovered _ if politicians decide to be as honest as Voinovich and Rubin in telling people what we face.

Bush has been adamant in rejecting a rollback or even a delay in the tax cut _ virtually all of which will go to the highest-income voters. His House Republican allies, seeking short-term political gain at the expense of long-term fiscal sanity, have been staging votes to make the tax cuts permanent.

The Democrats, while resisting that folly, have been unwilling as a party to do what Rubin, their most trustworthy economic adviser, says should be the first step: Make those future top-bracket tax cuts part of the current budget debate.

While three of the party's presidential hopefuls _ Sens. Joe Lieberman and John Edwards and Gov. Howard Dean _ have lined up with Rubin, Democratic congressional leaders Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt have blocked any such move, apparently fearful it might cost them seats as they strive to hold their Senate majority and regain control of the House.

The country pays a high price for their timidity _ and the Republicans' folly. Fudging the numbers in Washington is no way to restore trust in government.

+ David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. +

Washington Post Writers Group