WHAT congressional leaders have done to salvage the budget process is shift the venue and pray for better ideas. The new budget resolution differs from the failed summit agreement it seeks to replace in that, while prescribing the same set of laudable goals, it omits most of the means for achieving them.
Rather, the measure is aimed at buying two or three more weeks atop all that have gone before for congressional committees to work the means out. The required votes would then have to be cast even closer to the election, which in some respects is harder. But perhaps a heightened sense of either crisis or numbness by then could also make it easier.
There is no way of knowing in advance whether the new approach will succeed or, like so many predecessors, fail. But some of the standards of judgment can be laid out ahead of time.
1. The amount and timing of deficit reduction must be no less than the $500 billion over five years and $40 billion in the first year that the summit negotiators constructively kept as their goal. The softening economy will be offered as an excuse to lower or stretch the targets, but delay will merely institutionalize the deficit and the problems it represents at a higher plateau. This is medicine that should have been taken long ago.
2. The cuts can't be fake. No committee likes to penalize the interest groups that look to it, and some committees that would now have responsibility have become notorious confectioners at budget time. The leaders have to say no to games this year.
3. The idea of trading a cut in the capital gains tax for a higher top income tax rate has been revived as a way of rescuing a deal by giving each side a victory. A rate increase would indeed be the fairest way to raise extra money if the president would buy it, but so far he has not. But a gains cut would be a terrible idea, both costly and regressive, and in combination with a higher rate would undo tax reform by breeding tax shelters. It would be the ultimate irony if, in the name of progressivity and the middle class, the Democrats reintroduced the distinction in the tax code between investment and "ordinary" income.
4. The elderly now take up more than a third of the budget; there's no equitable way to cut the deficit without them. The summit negotiators turned to Medicare because Social Security was declared for political reasons to be off limits. The House then balked at exacting the sought-after contributions from Medicare recipients as well. One idea now is to protect recipients by making high earners pay increased Medicare taxes instead. That would be fine but still doesn't speak to the intergenerational issue of having recipients also pull an oar in deficit reduction. The right way to achieve that, if anyone had the political courage, continues to be to subject a higher percentage of Social Security benefits to the income tax.