THE RETURNING Congress has only 10 legislative weeks remaining before its scheduled early election-year adjournment -- four weeks in July, six in September-October. That's not much time to cut the budget deal that has eluded the two parties for so long, pass the implementing legislation and in the meantime enact all the rest of the musts on the agenda (clean air, child care, two civil rights bills, the farm bill, a housing bill ... ).
The reputations of Congress and the administration both now largely depend on the budget negotiations, and they must have at least the major elements of a deal in place by the August recess. The president's acknowledgment last month that deficit reduction requires a tax increase as well as spending cuts made the task both easier and harder -- easier in that, without such an acknowledgment, the work could not have gone forward, harder in that now the two parties must decide which tax increases and spending cuts to enact -- on whom to inflict the pain.
The air is suddenly as full of brightly colored trial balloons as if the budget talks were a child's birthday party. The administration is said to be considering a stock transfer tax, or if not that a BTU tax on energy, as well, of course, as the usual candidates of sin and gasoline tax increases. The Senate minority leader says that the White House will not countenance an income tax rate increase; the White House, however, feels obliged to say the next day that nothing has been ruled out. Some Democrats, meanwhile, are proposing reducing the net cost of Social Security on grounds that it wouldn't be fair to cut the rest of the indexed entitlements without also cutting this largest of them. It's not just balloons the air is full of, but heresy.
The deal should provide for solid multiyear deficit reduction of $40 billion to $50 billion a year for several years. About half should come in taxes, the rest on the spending side, and about half of that from defense, the rest from domestic programs. The tax increases should be structured to restore lost progressivity as well as revenue; the spending cuts should reach into the deep entitlement pockets where most of the money is, and it should spare the means-tested programs -- a smaller share of the budget than some people think -- that benefit the poor.
It's said that too large a shift in fiscal policy in an already spongy economy could produce a recession, as indeed it could -- and that a recession, in turn, would add to the deficit, offsetting all the good work that had been done. But 1) a recession would do less damage to the economy than the present policy of mortgaging the future for shaky short-term growth, and 2) past performance suggests that the greater risk is not that the negotiators will do too much, but that they will do too little. To have to urge an easing of fiscal policy because it was too disciplined and tight would seem almost a luxury and itself a sign of national recovery after the ruinous binge of the past 10 years.