Haven't we seen this somewhere before? Indeed we have. It became a familiar sight throughout the 1980s: a president solemnly surrounded by congressional leaders, trooping out to the Rose Garden to announce that "meaningful" budget reduction had taken place after long, grueling hours of negotiation.
We saw something similar in 1982, when President Reagan agreed to sign a $229 billion tax package on one condition: that for every new dollar of revenue, two dollars of spending would be cut. In fact, as each new tax dollar rolled into the Treasury, Congress spent about another $1.50.And we saw it again in 1987. President Reagan agreed to $23 billion in tax increases as part of a deal that was to reduce the deficit by $75 billion. In fact, spending shot up by $133 billion, and the deficit edged up $11 billion.
Given this history of "meaningful" deficit-reduction deals, the country is right to be skeptical of the package Bush unveiled. A balanced budget - disciplining our appetite to match our means - should be the least we expect from our political leaders.
The package is a grab bag of tax increases and the promise of future spending cuts.
The budgeteers vow $182 billion in "discretionary" spending will be cut by 1996, along with nearly $60 billion in Medicare. Understand that these are cuts in projected increases, not actual decreases from today's outlays. A lot can happen between now and 1996.
That uncertainty points up the major failure of this agreement: It contains no "meaningful" reform of the budget procedures that got us into this mess - no line-item veto, no strengthening of the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law.
President Bush will have to press hard to guarantee that this package, like so many before it, is not another deal written on the wind.