CONGRESS CONTINUES to look to a tax cut even as it casts votes whose effect would be to reduce the money available to finance one. But not to worry; Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made clear that at least some of the money will be found in a drawer labeled "creative accounting."
The House has taken the lead in pretending to set aside available funds or voting to spend them. Last month it overwhelmingly passed a so-called lockbox bill meant to signify the members' virtuous intentions with regard to the Social Security surplus. A separate vote would be required to use the money for anything but debt reduction or Social Security or Medicare reform. In the Senate, where the bill is caught in a procedural dispute, the Republican majority has gone on record as favoring it as well.
The Social Security surplus will constitute pretty much the entire budget surplus for at least the next few years. Wall it off and not much is left. Yet the House also voted overwhelmingly last week to increase aviation spending by some $14 billion in the years just ahead, and leaders of both parties concede that by year's end they will have to find a way to raise or evade the broader cap on all appropriations, or they won't have the votes to pass the main domestic appropriations bills.
Where will they find the money without dipping into the Social Security surplus? They won't, is the answer. Where will they then also find the money for tax cuts that aren't just distant promissory notes but will be felt before the next election? Mr. Lott offered a clue.
He is quoted as having told a meeting of the National Association of Manufacturers that a capital gains tax cut almost certainly will be part of the pending tax bill. "We are going to do it because it is the right thing to do," he is reported to have said. "But we have to do it because we need the money."
The short-term effect of a cut in the capital gains tax is to increase revenues, rather than to reduce them, because it stimulates some investors to sell in the near term assets they would otherwise hold for later. The increase is artificial, but under the estimating conventions, it still counts, and the proceeds of one tax cut become available to finance another.
A number of such devices are available to the tax committees, and they can be expected to use them all. In the long run, the revenue base is reduced, but in the first few years that reduction is masked. It's one more way of mortgaging the future -- and that's what this preelection year is increasingly about.