A LOT WAS wrong with the budget summit agreement the House rejected three weeks ago, but the serious deficit reduction it promised outweighed the flaws. The same is true of the amended version that could come to the floor of both chambers today. The president has swallowed some provisions he earlier said he wouldn't and indicated he will buy it. The House and Senate should do the same -- both parties -- dispose of their other business and go home, where they've got some serious explaining to do.
The new plan is less of a change from the old, and some of the changes are less constructive than the enveloping rhetoric would suggest. The basic difference is that taxes on the highest-income families will go up more so that the gasoline tax and contributions by Medicare recipients can go up less. We think that the gasoline tax ought to go up sharply as an inducement to conserve and that the elderly -- who account for nearly a third of the budget, mainly through Social Security and Medicare -- ought to be asked to make a clearer contribution to deficit reduction than members of Congress of either party unfortunately seem willing to exact.
The methods adopted for raising taxes at the top will also produce some uneven results, and the new plan quietly reintroduces the principle that capital gains should not be taxed the same as ordinary income, a backward step the old plan avoided. Still the distributional table looks much better than before. The old plan was regressive; in the new the rich will be called upon to pay their fair share. In the process the Democrats have regained their political voice; the debate is yeastier, and that too is to be welcomed.
Much has been made of the way the president and Republicans generally have been embarrassed on taxes in recent weeks, as if the embarrassment were avoidable. It mostly wasn't. For 10 years the Republicans defended and made doctrine of a mythical view of taxes and spending that finally -- $2 trillion in debt too late -- caught up with them. The president and party should never have run on a promise of no new taxes, which the president must have known he couldn't keep. There was no way the shift from that to a more responsible fiscal policy was ever going to be graceful, nor any way that, once the possibility of raising taxes was introduced, the Republicans were ever going to be able to avoid the question, "Whose?" The fairness issue can be avoided or blurred if the only fight is said to be between those who want to raise taxes and those who want to reduce them. As soon as that wall is breached and the fight becomes which taxes, you are into income shares.
The president has been on the defensive in part because he (faintly) did the right thing. This time Congress should do it as well. If the House Republicans continue to refuse to accept responsibility, the Democrats should govern with the president and without them. The deficit is more destructive than any device that has been proposed to reduce it. Neither party can afford to go home having failed to vote to bring it down.