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Federal budget lacks direction

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If anyone doubts whether the art of politics is alive and well, the adjournment of the 105th Congress should serve as a loud answer. The budget battle in the closing days of the session was as full of horse trading and pork-barrel spending as any in recent memory.

At the end, one thing emerged clear. Saying no is much harder when the government enjoys a surplus.And so the GOP gave in to President Clinton's demand for $1.1 billion to hire 100,000 schoolteachers nationwide, a gimmick that will do virtually nothing to improve education. Republicans won a concession in that some of the money may be used for teacher training and special education, but this is a huge waste of money and a bad precedent. Schools are local concerns and they ought to remain free from federal meddling.

On the other hand, the Democrats gave in to the largest peacetime increase in military spending since Ronald Reagan was president. Congress is concerned, and rightfully so, that the United States no longer is capable of adequately protecting its interests worldwide in the face of terrorism and despotic dictators. The extra spending includes $1 billion more toward the development of a missile defense program.

In between was sprinkled a host of other measures, some small and some extremely large - such as a $6 billion program to bail out farmers hurt by natural market forces.

The political process is not inherently bad, but it can lead to outlandish excesses if not checked by ideological priorities. Unfortunately, the only priority at the end of this Congress seemed to be averting a government shutdown at any cost.

Most Americans aren't likely to care - not as long as jobs are plentiful, interest rates are falling and politicians trumpet a federal sur-plus.

The trouble is, there is no surplus. Congress still is taking from Social Security trust funds to pay for other programs. Restore those funds and the surplus becomes a deficit of about $41 billion. Social Security still looms as a disaster waiting to happen as the "baby boom" generation moves toward retirement.

And, as everyone knows, the good times may be ending soon. A worldwide market collapse could be signaling a recession. Even if the United States escapes the brunt of this downturn, the best way to preserve the good times is through governmental austerity and a cut in taxes.

That would take leadership and vision. Most members of Congress don't appear to be in the mood for that right now.