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THE BUSH BUDGET

President Bush makes his first formal appearance in front of Congress tonight to pitch his budget proposal in an address that will substitute for the traditional State of the Union speech. He is expected to focus on his plan for a $1.6 trillion tax cut, which is unfortunate on at least three counts.

First, the size of the proposed cut is unwise, given that projections of the budget surplus have all the substance of cotton-candy and that, in any case, Washington's priority should be paying down the national debt. Second, Bush's proposed tax cut is simply unfair. Those who make the most get the most back at the expense of the neediest among us. And third, the debate over the tax proposal is liable to overshadow other aspects of the president's first budget, some of which could be particularly useful to the nation.

Bush's tax plan should give pause to anyone who remembers what happened under Ronald Reagan. The tax cut he rammed through Congress drove annual deficits -- and the national debt -- through the roof.

It was only because of the extraordinary national economy of the past decade that we've been able to crawl out from under the deficits, and stand a chance of eliminating the debt. Do we really want to risk returning to the days of compulsive deficits to pay for an overly large tax cut that distracts from the job of debt reduction?

If Bush is following Reagan's lead, then some of this may be strategy. If you reduce the amount of money available to Congress, you limit budget growth. That, at least, was the theory, but it resulted in mountainous deficits. We should already have learned the lesson of outsized tax cuts.

Beyond that, though, are some proposals that look, at least as they have been leaked, as broadly beneficial, though the fine print will be key. For example, Bush says he wants to slow the rate of growth in various programs. Former President Bill Clinton and Congress, for all the good they did in encouraging the surplus-producing economy, were not shy about spending the dollars that flowed in like honey.

One of the more interesting aspects of Bush's approach to this budget is to begin "a good, honest debate" over the value of certain programs. The theory is that some programs may once have been valuable, but are less so now.

The remarkable thing is that this kind of review is not a routine operation at the federal level. Unlike some states, Washington has no formal, nonpartisan mechanism for regularly evaluating the effectiveness and desirability of the programs it operates. We need one.

But arguments over that more important matter, and many others, are liable to be dominated by the tax debate. Bush would do well to scale back his proposed cut, declare victory and allow the other aspects of the budget he describes tonight to receive the attention they deserve.

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