Seven hundred and ninety-two billion dollars -- the size of the proposed Republican tax cut -- sounds like a lot of money. It used to be. But taken over 10 years (as this tax cut is), and in relation to the American economy (now about $8 trillion a year), it is not. It amounts to one percent of GDP.
In other words, the great Republican tax cut of '99 would reduce the Niagara of taxes now flooding the Treasury from about 21 percent of GDP to 20 percent. Significant, well, yes. But this hardly tears up the tax code.
Democrats have attacked the House bill because it cuts income taxes by 10 percent, and that favors the wealthy. But income taxes essentially are paid by the wealthy. The one in 12 taxpayers who earn $100,000 a year pay almost two-thirds of all income taxes.
By the Democrats' logic -- that the wealthy must never be allowed income-tax relief -- taxes can only be ratcheted up. It is this logic that by 1980 had brought us the confiscatory marginal tax rates that Reagan finally slashed, setting off our current 20-year economic boom.
Then, in 1986, the country experienced a political miracle, a reform that cleaned up the tax code by means of a simple bargain: lower rates in exchange for eliminating loopholes. The story of the past 13 years is the sorry and corrupt tale of the undoing of that amazing achievement: rising tax rates and proliferating loopholes, benefiting most of all accountants and lawyers and the super-rich who employ them.
What is wrong with the current House measure is not that it cuts marginal rates but that it lards the bill with tax breaks for powerful, well-connected industries from steel to oil to agriculture. It thus continues the assault on the pristine '86 reforms.
An even more serious problem is that Republicans are destroying the spending caps that gave us the surplus in the first place. Some Republicans are talking about openly eliminating the caps. But they do not have to be eliminated officially. They are being wildly circumvented under the expedient of "emergency spending." It has reached the point where just a few days ago a House appropriations subcommittee passed a $4.5 billion emergency spending bill for the 2000 census, an event that since 1790 has been as predictable as the tides.
What should we be doing? The safest use for the surplus is simply to do nothing. Allow it to retire debt. (Cutting taxes is fine -- it keeps the surplus from being spent -- but it is overly stimulative in an expanding economy.) If Congress and the president were to leave town today and not come back for 10 years, they would return to a country with virtually no national debt.
Unfortunately, Congress and the presidency are here to stay. And they refuse to undertake the single most important fiscal task facing the nation: reforming Social Security and Medicare. Thirty years ago, these programs ate up about a third of the budget. In 10 years, they will devour two-thirds.
This would perfectly suit the baby boomers, the most piggish generation on record, by turning the federal government into a huge conveyor belt transferring money from working taxpayers to them when they achieve fogeyhood. Clinton, relentlessly waving the Social Security/Medicare banner, is feeding the piggishness. And even adding to it by proposing a new prescription drug benefit at a time when two-thirds of seniors -- who, incidentally, have a lower poverty rate than the rest of the population -- already have prescription drug coverage.
The most important way to control spending is to restructure the programs for the aged. (We could start by raising the retirement age a modest year or two.) But that will not happen. The tax trough is so overflowing and the opportunity for political demagoguery so great that Clinton and the Democrats will insist on simply feeding the Social Security/Medicare maw even as it eats everything in sight. Indeed, they are selling Medicare now not just as a seniors' program but a women's program -- thus achieving that coveted political feat, the double pander.
They'll win. And so will the Republicans. Together they will forge a "compromise": a tax cut to satisfy the Republicans and huge new spending for the Democrats. And then in a few years, when the "new economy" proves as vulnerable to downturns as the old one, we will be back in deficit and looking for leadership.
That's the bad news. The good news is that by then both Clinton and the 106th Congress will not be around to not provide it.