The economic news out of Washington has been positively buoyant over the past few weeks. Trillion- dollar surpluses are projected over the next decade. The years of fiscal belt-tightening have paid off. Our government is about to be awash in money.
Congress, never slow on the uptake, is working feverishly to spend the anticipated surplus, with the siren song of tax cuts wafting through the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Before Congress gets too far along with these grandiose spending and tax cut plans, a dose of reality is in order. The fact is that the nation does not have a budget surplus -- there is a projected budget surplus. The gulf between actual and projected is immense. It is the difference between having $1,000 in cold, hard cash to invest in the stock market, and having a projected return of $10,000 in 10 years. The reality is that we have $1,000, not $10,000, to spend today. And, no matter how rosy the future looks, we may not have that $10,000 in 10 years.
The projected federal budget surplus is on even shakier ground because it is predicated on the assumption that government spending will be held in check under the budget restraints that were put in place when we were dealing with deficits, not surpluses, and that the inflow of tax receipts will continue at current rates. But Congress is ready to consider tax cut proposals that will substantially reduce the amount of money the government collects. We also have already burst through those restraints in defense spending -- necessary defense spending, I might add -- and there are a host of other ailing programs waiting in the wings.
Education, health care, job training, law enforcement, school safety, veterans' benefits, road and bridge repair, aviation improvements -- the list could go on and on. All of these programs, and more, are facing crippling budget reductions under the current budget caps. These are not Washington's priorities; these are America's priorities. I do not believe for a moment that the American people favor wholesale tax cuts based on illusory budget projections that are paid for by deep cuts in other priority programs.
Nor do I think Congress needs to choose an all-or-nothing course of action. What we need to jettison is the political rhetoric. What we need to impose is truth in spending. This is not an "us versus them" battle; this is not a "big government versus little people" battle. It is time to realize that we are all in this together, and we all need to pull together.
So what should Congress do? The same thing any wise investor would do.
First, watch our investments carefully and manage them prudently. We should continue our best efforts to manage the economy and watch out for inflation.
Second, do not spend our money before we make it. Before the surplus is spent, whether on tax cuts or continuing important priority programs, wait for the money to be in the bank.
Third, pay our debts. The United States should take advantage of this opportunity to retire the national debt.
Fourth, cover the necessities. Congress should not shortchange the nation's core programs, such as education, health care, veterans, and the like.
Fifth, put aside what we need to for a rainy day. Congress should take steps to reserve the Social Security and Medicare surpluses exclusively for future costs of those programs.
Sixth, don't go on a spending spree. Resist the temptation to create costly new government programs.
Finally, take prosperity in measured doses. Congress should reduce taxes without pulling the rug out from under projected surpluses.
After years of struggling to overcome a sluggish economy and mounting deficits, America is well-launched on an economic renaissance. I hope and pray that we in Congress can rise to the challenge and serve as wise stewards of this economic prosperity, putting aside our political differences to act in the best interests of the American people.
The writer is a Democratic senator from West Virginia.