Washington The debate on the federal budget this year is taking place in an atmosphere far different from the earlier years of the Bush administration. It's almost as if the fiscal binge is over and legislators -- especially Republicans -- have sobered up.
In the first year after George Bush's election, amid the euphoria of promised budget surpluses as far as the eye could see, nothing mattered much to congressional Republicans but handing out whopping tax cuts to their constituents.
In 2002 and 2003, under the shock of the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq, along with a poky economy, the case for spending "whatever it takes" drove every other consideration from their minds.
It is only now, in year four, with another presidential election looming and the stark reality of a record deficit staring them in the face, that the members of the president's party are acting as if they have recognized the hole the country is in.
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan helped the sobering-up process by warning last month that the long-term fiscal imbalance he and most serious economists outside the White House foresee would almost inevitably force a choice in the next decade between sharply higher taxes and reduced Social Security benefits.
Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Budget Committee chairman, set the theme of the new sobriety. Retiring from public service at the end of this year, this classic conservative clearly does not want trillions of new public debt as his legacy. He told his colleagues it is not good enough to promise, as Bush has done, to cut the deficits in half over the next five years.
Bush does that -- on paper -- only by ignoring such big-ticket items as the ongoing costs of occupying Iraq and the revenues that will be lost when political pressure forces major changes in the Alternative Minimum Tax that is about to hit millions of middle-income families.
Nickles offered an alternative that he said would erase half the deficit in three years and even dared to reduce the hefty increase Bush asked for the Pentagon. Democrats said he did not go far enough.
Even more striking were the words -- and demeanor -- of Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the senior Republican on the Budget Committee for almost 22 years and its former chairman. In earlier Bush years, it was a matter of surprise and even dismay to budget hawks that Domenici countenanced and defended big tax cuts in the face of rising deficits.
Now clearly concerned, Domenici said that he believed the nation could work its way out of this jam -- but only if Congress again applies the enforceable budget limits that worked well in the 1990s. And specifically, he indicated his readiness to support "pay-go" rules for future tax cuts, as well as spending proposals. That would mean that any tax breaks not on the books would have to be matched either by spending cuts or alternative revenue-raisers.
Bush, in his budget, would impose "pay-go" rules on spending but not on tax cuts, tilting the table in the direction of his favorite pastime, reducing the taxes his patrons have to pay.
But the only way out of this jam -- the only way to prepare for the staggering retirement and health care costs of the soon-to-retire baby boomers -- is if tax cuts and spending are both brought back into line.
As former senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming once said, Democrats and Republicans have to agree "to link arms and go over the cliff together."
An election year is a tough time to ask for responsibility. The budget debates are just beginning in the Senate and House, and may fall victim to the usual partisan gamesmanship. But as Greenspan said, the sooner this budget disaster is addressed, the less painful the fix will be. Procrastination is no policy.
To clarify a couple of points in last week's column about the Commission on Presidential Debates: The commission is an independent nonprofit, not an adjunct of the Democratic and Republican parties. Its criteria for candidate inclusion require the aspirant to receive 15 percent of the votes in several reputable polls, not a single poll. And the lawsuit filed against it by Ralph Nader and others concerns its right to run debates this year, not the exclusion of Nader from the 2000 debates.
- David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.