Promoting tax cuts on The Post's op-ed page is a little like cheering for the Dallas Cowboys at Jack Kent Cooke stadium. Indeed, it's hard to count on one hand the times when The Post's editors have supported a tax cut.

But today's debate over the budget surplus is much larger than tax cuts. When I say surplus, I am not talking about the Social Security surplus, because Republicans will use 100 percent of the Social Security surplus for retirement security, and we're pleased that the president agrees with us.

Rather, the real debate is over the on-budget surplus generated purely from higher income tax revenues. It is the fundamental debate conservatives and liberals have argued for years -- what is the proper size and role of the federal government?

In that light, it is easy to see why President Clinton and Democrats are fighting ferociously against broad-based tax cuts and why Republicans in Congress are fighting just as ferociously to get the money out of Washington, fast. Despite repeated evidence to the contrary -- the success of welfare reform, for instance -- liberals cannot let go of their firmly held belief that higher taxes and more government spending are the best answers to America's challenges.

In 1995 President Clinton said, "People in this room are still mad at me at that [1993] budget because you think I raised your taxes too much. Well, it might surprise you to know I think I raised them too much, too." I couldn't agree more with the president.

But 14 days ago, the president in one breath announced a bigger budget surplus and in the next proposed to spend it on a flurry of government programs. And despite the surplus, he still refused to cancel his proposed $170 billion new tax hike on the American people, or to give tax relief to those for whom he "raised them too much" in 1993.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan worried aloud about this irresistible urge to spend the surplus when he testified before the Ways and Means Committee in January, saying, "If we have to get rid of the surpluses -- I would far prefer reducing taxes than [increasing] spending, and, indeed, I don't think it's a close call."

Chairman Greenspan knows what everyone inside and outside the Beltway has known for years: If money is left in Washington, politicians will spend it every time. And once higher spending levels are set, the "baseline" budgeting gimmick to protect government turns any future reduction in spending into a mean-spirited, drastic, Draconian "cut." Big government on autopilot returns.

Tax cuts are the only defense. But tax cuts do so much more by giving more freedom and power to the American people. And if the surplus means anything at all, it means that Americans are paying way too much. Consider the following:

Americans are paying a record-high 21 percent of GDP in taxes, the highest since World War II, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The average U.S. household will pay approximately $5,307 more than the government needs over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The typical American family pays more than 38 percent of its income in total taxes -- more than it spends on food, clothing and shelter combined (28 percent), according to the Tax Foundation.

The average household pays $9,445 in federal income taxes alone, twice what it paid in 1985, according to the Census Bureau.

Is it any wonder Americans feel as though they're working harder than ever but can't seem to get ahead?

Last week, the Census Bureau reported that almost 49 million Americans lived in households that couldn't pay their basic bills. If they didn't face bigger and bigger taxes, Americans would have more for themselves and their families.

Broad-based tax relief is the best answer. That's why Republicans will use a major portion of the surplus to reduce taxes on all Americans. While targeted relief may have a political appeal to some, it would be wrong to deny relief to everyone who made this surplus possible. And if the worst were to happen and the surplus gets spent, it's all but certain that taxes will rise in the future to finance the spending spree.

While "compassionate conservatism" has taken a good many jabs from both ends of the political spectrum, the American people are responding with a resounding "Amen." They know it is compassionate to cut Washington spending so government doesn't get bigger and more intrusive. And they know it is compassionate to cut taxes because they want more control and direction over their own lives.

We are at a crossroads in our country's history. We've balanced the budget, reformed welfare and cut wasteful spending. We're enjoying an era of peace and prosperity. And the hard work of taxpayers and the strength of American businesses large and small have produced a windfall for Washington.

But a windfall for Washington isn't right. Americans shouldn't work for Washington, Washington should work for them, and cutting taxes is the best way to tip the scales back. After all, what this debate is about is downsizing the power of government and upsizing the power of people.

The writer, a Republican representative from Texas, is chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means.