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The Budget Shambles

CAPITAL punishment doesn't deter crime, and it's clear that capitol punishment - in the form of the Gramm-Rudman budget guillotine - does little more to deter fiscal misdemeanors in Washington. For the second time in three years, Congress failed Monday to meet the deadline for reaching budget goals prescribed by the deficit-reduction law, and the law's automatic, across-the-board spending cuts have gone into effect. Yet few people on Capitol Hill seem even chagrined, let alone concerned. Most observers blithely predict that before the spending cuts in nonexempted domestic and defense programs really bite in a month or so, the House and Senate will reconcile their budget bills for fiscal 1990 (which began Oct. 1) and bring the year's projected deficit under the $100 billion target. Then the cuts will be restored. So not to worry.

Maybe some of our federal lawmakers should have tried out in the recent auditions for the revival of ``Annie.'' They certainly know the words: ``The sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar....''

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It isn't their bottom dollars, but those of future generations that lawmakers bet as they continue the irresponsible charade that passes for budget discipline in today's Washington. The problem isn't just that Congress again fiddled as the deadline bore down. Even worse, the deficit target will be achieved in part through accounting gimmicks that, if practiced in the private sector, might well convene a grand jury.

For one thing, since Gramm-Rudman is hitched to budget projections, Congress and the White House tend to calculate those projections on wildly optimistic assumptions about future rates of economic growth, inflation, and interest. For another, Congress has devised all sorts of smoke-and-mirrors devices to fudge the calculations: shifting expenditures from one fiscal year to another, backloading spending programs so that the big outlays are deferred for a few years, arbitrarily taking certain programs ``off budget.'' Actual year-end deficits invariably exceed the Gramm-Rudman projections, but the law has no retroactive application.

In truth, the federal budget process is a national disgrace. Of course, the blame doesn't lie fully in Washington. In the final analysis, policymakers are just reflecting the values of a generation of Americans that appears to be indulging itself at dreadful risk to those who will inherit a national debt about to surpass $3 trillion.

The system is broke - in both meanings. It needs to be fixed.

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