After nearly a year of effort, a prestigious National Economic Commission that was supposed to come up with bipartisan answers to ending federal budget deficits has ended its work on a disappointing note. The final report issued this week was split along party lines and appears doomed to failure.
The eight members appointed by the Republican administration endorsed President Bush's pledge against raising taxes and praised his budget submitted to Congress as a "workable" plan to end the deficit by 1993. But there is reason to doubt that optimistic view.The six members appointed by the Democratic congressional leadership signed a minority report saying that tax hikes are necessary and the budget was "not realistic," a verdict that has been voiced by others.
As a result of this partisan split, the commission does not offer the president and Congress a rallying point where they can join hands to reduce the deficit, estimated to reach $170 billion this year.
That is a deep disappointment. It had been hoped that the panel of top business, labor and political leaders could have agreed on a combination of spending cuts and tax increases to solve the deficit problem. The commission now goes out of existence more or less empty handed.
The total federal deficit has tripled in the past eight years and now costs more than $150 billion a year from federal revenues to finance the interest payments. This can't continue, but the prospects for making a real dent in the problem appear remote.
Much of the commission's work was undermined during the presidential campaign when Bush made "no tax increase" a fundamental election promise. That, plus his criticism of the need for the commission, effectively negated the work of the panel before it ever got the job completed.
All members of the commission did agree that federal budgets must not only get rid of the huge deficits, but must develop surpluses necessary to cover the retirement costs of the "baby boom" generation. In effect, it said the job is bigger than just balancing future budgets.
Both the majority and minority reports endorsed the need to reform the congressional budget process.
The Republican majority also urged that the cost of the thrift crisis be included in the budget and that the deficit be reduced without counting the Social Security surplus as revenue - both sensible suggestions that ought to be adopted.
In addition, the majority called for a balanced budget amendment, line-item veto power for the president, and two-year budgeting, all causes championed by former President Reagan - to no avail in the Democratic-controlled Congress.
Those recommendations, as badly needed as they may be, stand as little chance of being approved by Congress under a Bush administration as they did under Reagan.
The disappointing result of so much work by the commission does not hold out much hope for deficit-reduction efforts. They will remain tangled in partisan politics, fear of tax hikes and fear of spending cuts.
A chance to cut through that muddle has been lost. It's a loss that will be hard to make up.