AN ENTIRE YEAR of effort to contain the federal deficit now comes down to two conference committees. One is charged with drawing up a single resolution funding all the parts of the government subject to the annual appropriations process, including defense. The other is supposed to produce a reconciliation bill adjusting otherwise automatic spending programs and including a tax increase.
To preserve what credibility remains on this issue and to do their job in a sensible way, the conferees should:
1. Reject the fake tax increases with which the Senate, in part at administration urging, salted its version of the reconciliation bill. The White House has already succeeded in cutting the proposed tax increase down to $9 billion, half what it ought to be. To hollow out even that would be a travesty. There are plenty of solid provisions in the House bill with which to replace the meringue on the Senate side. One is the proposal to cap the mortgage interest deduction. The House bill would also repeal a preference under which defense contractors don't have to pay all their taxes until a contract is over. Normal companies have to pay as they earn.
2. Take the curlicues out of the Senate farm spending cuts. The right way to cut farm spending is to reduce the target prices on which farm subsidies are based. The Senate committee did a little of that, but not enough. The agriculture provisions are a lot better than in an earlier draft of the reconciliation bill, where they were pure froth. But they're still not good enough.
3. Ease up a little on the Postal Service. To make the numbers come out right, White House and congressional negotiators decided last month that they would save about $800 million a year from personnel reforms. They had only the vaguest idea what these might be. For various reasons, some technical, some political, the authorizing committees have since found it difficult to go against the civil service for the money. They have turned to the Postal Service instead. It can afford to pony up more of this than all the backfires it has lit in recent days suggest. But the terms need to be adjusted so the hit is less sudden.
4. The House has in its version of the continuing resolution language to restore the so-called fairness doctrine. Congress tried to do this in straightforward fashion earlier this year and failed to override a presidential veto. This is backdoor legislating of the worst imaginable kind. It is bad enough to have the whole legislative year come down to just two bills. The leadership should rule out this further abuse and cheapening of the process. It's time for Congress to grow up.