THE MAIN objective of each party in this uplifting Congress thus far has been to obstruct the agenda of the other without being charged with obstructionism. The votes are such that neither party can impose its will. Both think they have a chance of picking up the necessary power in the next election. Until then, they mainly temporize, not legislating so much as pretending to do so while they jockey for political advantage.
The Republican tax cut proposal is at the center of the maneuvering. The sponsors describe the bill as an effort to return to the public money the government doesn't need. The Democrats says it's candy for the rich and that the long-term effect would be to force the government once again to choose between damaging spending cuts or an equally damaging return to borrow-and-spend.
The president invokes Social Security and Medicare as powerful symbols of the programs a large tax cut would strand. Fix them first, he says; then will be time enough for tax cuts. But then he no more than anyone else proposes a serious plan to put either program on a sound long-term financial footing. That would require either tax increases or benefit cuts, from which he shrinks. Instead he proposes merely to pay down the debt in their name, a worthy first step only. In the meantime, he would make the more serious of the two problems -- Medicare's -- worse by adding a needed -- and of course popular -- but quite costly prescription drug benefit.
The Republicans, no more eager to seem opposed to these steps than are Democrats to seem opposed to tax cuts, say they, too, want to fix the giant programs and even add a limited drug benefit. To prove their fidelity to Social Security, they voted to put the entire Social Security surplus into a "lockbox" from which it couldn't be withdrawn for other purposes. But now they're preparing to withdraw some anyway, as is the president. They have to, to pass the appropriations bills needed to run the government. One last deep swig from the bottle, you could call it, except that it won't be the last. The surplus in other than Social Security funds on which the Republicans are counting to finance their tax cut is a figment of the political imagination. For it to materialize, most other domestic spending for everything from tax collection to highway construction would have to be cut by more than a fifth in real terms. A lot of Republicans are as unprepared to vote for that as are most Democrats.
The budget debate is thus phony, top to bottom. The debate outside the confines of the budget likewise is encased in pretense, though to a lesser degree. The president's agenda, which controls, is more modest than either party finds it convenient to admit. The bills are worthy, just less so than they are made to sound. He supports campaign finance reform legislation that would curb the most egregious practices only; managed care regulation that would merely sand the rough edges off an industry it otherwise rightly supports; a minimum wage increase that is little more than an inflation catch-up.
The Republican leadership likes none of these, but the causes are hard to resist outright. Votes on campaign finance have been deferred until fall. The clock then can be used to help bury a bill in the unlikely event one survives a Senate filibuster. A managed care bill passed the Senate, but was only a shell. It gave Republicans cover -- a vote in favor of the label even though on the substance they mostly voted no. The House still is struggling with the issue. A minimum-wage bill seems likely to pass, but festooned with offsetting favors to business; that will be the price of keeping the purchasing power of the wage from falling.
But the core issue is the budget, and on that, a standoff actually would be good for the country. No grand political compromise. No tax cut. No drug benefit, which ought to be part of a plan to strengthen Medicare, not a plan to spend a surplus that doesn't exist. They should pass the appropriations bills, use whatever is left to pay down the debt against the day when the baby boomers retire and the government will have to borrow again, and go home. The president began the year by declaring grandly that it was time to solve the long-term fiscal problems that Social Security and Medicare present. It's pretty plain that's not going to happen. The least they should do instead is not make the prospect worse.