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Hands Off the Cookie Jar

Both President Clinton and GOP congressional leaders have sworn off the old voodoo economics. Or so they say.

Neither side wants to dent coming federal budget surpluses. Mr. Clinton demanded, in his State of the Union address, that surpluses be reserved to fix future deficits in Medicare and Social Security. Those are due to start, respectively, in the first and third decades of the new century.

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We have favored just such an approach for years. And we applaud the president for reaching that conclusion, albeit belatedly. The first baby boomer president has finally noted the big boomer impact on retirement entitlements. Possibly that's because the US public has become concerned.

Now the task will be to keep both parties' good intentions in line.

GOP congressional leaders want to vote tax cuts. They will try to keep such cuts from eating into budget surpluses by reining hard against new or expanded federal programs. But there are already signs that in this election year such Puritan resolve may slip.

And, on the administration's side, Mr. Clinton's "hands off those surpluses" caution could easily be broken by popular programs that start small but expand rapidly. That's certainly true of entitling late 50s citizens, the ineptly named "near-aged," to buy into Medicare. Medical costs are escalating again, and that would likely bring later pleas for subsidies.

It is hard to forecast the size of future surpluses. Major parts of the equation - growth rates for the US and world economies, productivity improvements, stock markets, defense budgets, etc. - are notoriously variable.

But, to clamp some discipline on Congress and the president, it makes sense to take Congressional Budget Office projections of surpluses and designate that those amounts will be devoted solely to reducing the national debt each year.

Such debt reduction is the simplest way to provide funds for future Medicare and Social Security needs. By reducing the huge portion of each year's budget devoted to interest payments, this generation can shrink the burden they will otherwise throw onto their children. That's only fair.

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