THE PRESIDENT stuck to the right positions in the revised budget he sent to Congress yesterday. The administration projects an even larger budget surplus over the next 15 years than it did in submitting its original budget six months ago. The Congressional Budget Office is expected to raise its estimate this week as well.
Most congressional Republicans and some Democrats see the larger estimates as a license to cut taxes. They argue that if the money isn't moved out of Washington, it will be spent. The administration's correct response is that most of it already has been spent -- that the surplus is an accounting illusion that disappears if you fairly add up all the costs the government faces, the costs not just of the baby boomers' impending retirement but of maintaining the rest of government, including defense, at levels the public rightly has come to expect.
Mr. Clinton thus would continue to reserve the great bulk of the anticipated surplus for Social Security, Medicare and the array of programs covered by the annual appropriations process, which otherwise would have to be sharply cut. In part, the money would be reserved by paying down debt, thereby reducing the government's sizable annual interest costs. Only a limited amount would be available for tax cuts -- and the main tax cut, the president says, should be in the form of contributions to a new kind of savings account for retirement. The retirement accounts would partly offset and ease the Social Security benefit cuts that likely still will be necessary to keep that program whole.
The strength of the president's budget is this realistic use he would make of the anticipated surplus, assuming it materializes. The weakness is that spending a surplus that doesn't yet exist is pretty much all he does. If he prevails, he will have fended off a destructive tax cut in the name of "saving Social Security first." But he won't have taken the hard next steps of bringing benefits in line with the revenue he will have reserved. He continues to suggest as well that he is open to negotiations with the tax-cutters. That's the direction in which trouble lies.