Nearly one month after the federal fiscal year began Oct. 1, Congress finally produced a budget. And President Bush is willing to accept it. But the struggle did not cover those involved with any glory.
A feeling of "throw the rascals out" of Congress has been spreading across the country, although most political experts don't expect to see incumbents toppling like dominoes.Bush has not fared too well in the public eye, either. His flip-flops during the budget negotiations made him appear indecisive at times. And his staunch opposition to tax hikes for the wealthy did not endear him to people of more modest means.
It's hard to gauge the extent of that feeling since the president has earned high marks for his performance in the Persian Gulf crisis. But in the final days before the Nov. 6 election, many Republicans are trying to distance themselves from the president.
As for the budget package itself, it's full of flaws but is better than the original measure vetoed by Bush a month ago. It raises some taxes, it cuts some spending and supposedly will reduce deficit spending by $490 billion over the next five years. Whether any deficit reduction actually will take place remains to be seen.
Even many of those who voted for the budget did not do so enthusiastically but most recognized that this was the best they were going to get.
The spending bill raises taxes on the wealthy. Those with incomes of more than $200,000 will see an average tax hike of 6.3 percent. Upper incomes will have less money allowed on their deductions and exemptions. People of more moderate incomes will not have higher income taxes but will pay more in taxes for consumer purchases such as gasoline, airline tickets, alcohol and cigarettes. Tax credits will be offered to 5 million low-income families with children.
One of the biggest problems with raising taxes as a means to cure the deficit is that nobody can guarantee that higher taxes will be used to pay for deficit reduction. In years past, as a growing economy has pumped additional billions into federal coffers, Congress has managed to spend all the extra income - while the deficit has gotten larger.
Among program cuts, one of the biggest impacts will be among the sick and elderly, hardly the best target for saving money. Medicare taxes and premiums will rise.
The budget also contains many of the usual pork-barrel spending programs in the districts of influential members of Congress.
The budget process, although it had Congress and the administration looking inept at times, at least forced them to face up to the deficit problem and the choices that must be made.
Judging from the agonized twisting and turning on all sides, they didn't like it very much. But they had better get used to it. This was just the first chapter in what promises to be a long confrontation with budget deficits.
Let's hope Congress and the president handle it better next time.