THE BUDGET that President Bush sent to Congress yesterday is the first mainly honest presidential budget that the country has had in 10 years. As part of their pre-election budget agreement, the president and Congress both confessed last fall that the deficit for the next few years would be much higher than they had earlier pretended. Instead of imposing fake ceilings on the deficit, they decided to impose some new controls on tax and spending legislation and wait.
It was a healthy change. As director Richard Darman noted in an introduction to the budget, there used to be "incentives for the administration to err in the direction of rosy projections. There were related incentives for the Congress first to criticize . . . and then to adopt the same projections. . . . Now, these perverse incentives have been reduced," the underlying budget assumptions are "closer to mainstream thinking," and budget projects "may be judged to be more credible than in the past." That doesn't mean there isn't some programmatic rouge here and there; there always is. But a return to basic credibility in the presentation of the government's accounts would confer as great a benefit as any proposal the budget contains.
The recession, the savings-and-loan bailout and Operation Desert Storm will all increase the deficit. But once their effects have been felt, the agreement of last year to which the budget adheres would reduce the deficit to its lowest level in 20 years. The president's plan in fact goes beyond the agreement in the cuts it proposes, the largest being further reductions in payments to hospitals and doctors under Medicare. In terms of the agreement, the administration thus has give itself a cushion; if it and Congress should decide to increase other spending, it can say it has a way to pay for that without a tax increase.
Otherwise, the budget is mostly a series of minor tradeoffs of the sort the new rules require; for every proposed increase in spending there must be a corresponding cut. That's not inspiring, but there isn't money for more. Some of the choices made are good -- an increase in the supplemental feeding program for low-income pregnant women and infants, a wipeout of the Economic Development Administration, which has outlived its time. Others -- more spending on the space program but less on clean water, for example -- seem wrong. But they are all within the envelope of normal political debate; that, too, distinguishes this budget.
Its best idea is that the government begin to cap the benefits of upper-income households. The president proposes that Medicare recipients with incomes over $125,000 a year be charged higher premiums; that farm income supports no longer go to producers with more than $125,000 of non-farm income; that the widows of generals and enlisted men get similar survivor's benefits in the future; that middle-class pupils pay more for their school lunches; that college student aid be concentrated more than now on needy as distinct from middle-class recipients. In fiscal terms, most of the proposals are only symbolic. They would not raise that much money, and are meant in part to neutralize the fairness issue; the president has once again proposed to cut the capital gains tax mainly paid by the rich. But the motivation shouldn't matter; many of these are worthy ideas, and Mr. Darman is right: if the Democratic Congress means to practice the fairness it preaches, it should adopt them.