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'That's Where the Money Is'

September 25, 1988

Congress established the bipartisan National Economic Commission last year and gave it the modest assignment of finding ways to reduce the federal budget deficit while promoting economic growth, savings and capital formation. The commission was told to have its ideas ready for the new President next March. In Washington the other day Robert S. Strauss, the Democratic co-chairman of the 12-member commission, chose to talk publicly about where his own thoughts on deficit reduction are so far leading. His candid comments set off a political firestorm of protest and denunciation.

Yet what Strauss dared to suggest was only what economic imperatives so plainly require. As virtually everyone agrees, annual federal deficits that continue to hover around $150 billion jeopardize the nation's economic well-being. As nearly everyone knows, even though many in public life fear to say, those deficits can be reduced in only two ways. One is for Congress to boost revenues by raising taxes. The other is to trim federal expenditures--preferably by means, as the commission's mandate puts it, that would leave the burden of deficit reduction equitably distributed.

Strauss focused on this point in particular, noting that defense and entitlement programs account for an overwhelming share of the budget. Asked why he robbed banks, the late Willie Sutton said because "that's where the money is." Strauss thinks that military expenditures and entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare, will have to be considered for budget cuts because "that's where the money is."

The two major presidential candidates, who up to now have avoided talking any sense at all about the deficit problem, reacted to Strauss' suggestion by fleeing in terror from its implications. Other politicians, liberals and conservatives alike, responded by swearing that they would defend to the death their own favorite programs against any cuts. Such election-year passion and rhetoric was only to be expected. Congress, which set up the commission because political timidity and ideological deadlock have prevented it from dealing on its own with the deficit challenge, told the group not to report until next March precisely to keep its inevitably controversial recommendations out of the political campaign. That's also the reason the commission has stayed away from holding any public hearings.

Yet the campaign will end, a new President will take office, and the unsolved deficit problem will be there, clamoring for action that can no longer be postponed. There are only two feasible and fair ways to bring down the deficit. The next President isn't talking about either of them now. He will have no choice but to do so after next Jan. 20.

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