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The budget adrift

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IF, as you float along on your rubber raft through the rest of August, you feel you need a serious issue to mull over, consider the federal budget deficit. The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office forecast last week that without changes in spending policy, the deficit would rise from $157 billion in this fiscal year to $183 billion next year and to $192 billion the year after.

The White House had earlier projected a very similar figure for the current year deficit, but was more optimistic - to the tune of $161 billion and $166 billion, respectively - for the next couple of years.

Some sort of Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction action may be forthcoming, but it is likely to be done mostly with accounting smoke and mirrors. ``Automatic cuts'' are all too likely to be reversed by Congress at the first opportunity.

Earlier in the 1980s Congress and the administration did make some progress in working on the deficit. But of late, both sides have been hardening their positions: the President adamant against tax increases and defense cuts, Congress adamant against domestic spending cuts, and in fact, even talking about new spending.

Indeed, the electorate as a whole has shifted a little leftward on government spending, at the state and local as well as federal level: Witness the new initiatives in education and health insurance. State taxes are back up to their pre-``Proposition 13'' levels. And it is telling that in many cases where federal funding has been withdrawn, the states have replaced the money with their own funds rather than eliminate the program at issue.

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