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Cotton Candy

August 04, 1985

"Boy, are we glad that's over!" You could imagine those words muttered hundreds of times with sighs of relief as members of Congress adopted the tatters of a 1986 federal budget and scattered for their August recess. It's not over, of course. The nation's debt will grow by about $17 billion during their month's absence from the Potomac. Soon it will top $2 trillion, having doubled in the past four years.

The collective judgment on the budget achievement, happily, was not too self-laudatory, going roughly like this: "We did the best with what we had to work with." Maybe. The budget nibbles around the edges of the deficit problem but gets nowhere near the red meat of the matter.

In fact, the $56 billion in deficit reductions includes a good deal of cotton candy and figure-juggling. One estimate is that real deficit cuts may total only $40 billion. Even to achieve that amount, Congress must adhere rigidly to the budget targets as it passes the various departmental appropriations bills. The current pending version of the farm bill alone is an $18-billion budget-buster for the three-year period covered by the resolution.

One of the biggest budget-growth items could barely be touched in any event. That is the $146 billion that taxpayers will have to spend in the year beginning Oct. 1 to pay the interest on the federal debt. Imagine how much taxes could be cut if the nation were not dragging that ball and chain.

But the fact that the budget-deficit issue is not over means that there is still time this coming fall to take some significant positive action.

President Reagan could make good at last on his constant threat to veto budget-busting appropriations bills. While the President does not have the line-item veto that he wants so badly, Congress could delete the offending items, or reduce the excessive level of spending, and re-pass the revised bill in a matter of hours. That, in effect, is a line-item veto.

Better yet, Congress could pass a tax increase and earmark it for deficit reduction. Any of three ideas that bounced around all year, or a combination of them, would be acceptable and would not jeopardize the economy: an oil-import fee, an effective minimum income tax or a year's delay in tax indexing. No doubt the President would veto it. Let him. If Congress really wants to do something about the deficit, it could muster its will and override the veto.

A serious attempt to override the President on a tax-bill veto would be a drastic act. But the deficit problem is the real threat to the economy, and it demands drastic action.

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