There should be no mistake about it: This time the budget-deficit buck stops at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The budget crisis, and it is a crisis, might well be solved today if President Reagan had been willing to accept perhaps just one of the new budget elements presented to him Tuesday by his weary Republican Senate leaders. A modest fee on imported oil most likely would have done it.
Instead, the senators were sent packing back to Capitol Hill with an imperious presidential command to “get down to business and produce a budget.” Along with that went the gratuitous comments of the White House press aide that Congress could write a $59-billion deficit-reduction package if it really wanted to. Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) must have bit his tongue to keep from uttering anything stronger than his spitting retort: “Larry Speakes is not writing our budget.”
The fact is that budget makers in both the House and the Senate have gone the extra mile in trying to fashion a credible budget this year--one that makes a major reduction in the $200-billion annual deficits that are the legacy of the President’s 1981 tax cut and his military-spending spree. Both sides have made substantial sacrifices over the past seven months in an effort to produce a plan that meets the White House’s approval. Each time they got the door slammed in their faces.
If the President was really serious about reducing the deficit, he had ample opportunity to accomplish it in a fashion that would gracefully skirt any campaign promises concerning tax increases. There is nothing sacred about a campaign promise if conditions dictate a change. Economic conditions are deteriorating day by day as the federal debt nears the $2-trillion mark. The oil-import fee made sense in many ways. It would have been easily affordable in this period of worldwide oil surpluses and declining prices.
The President’s inflexibility lends credence to the reports that he deliberately allowed the deficit to soar as a ploy for paring away at the federal establishment, eliminating programs that have served the nation well. The problem with such an irresponsible strategy, Budget Director David A. Stockman has been reported as saying, is that the deficit monster got out of control. It is even more out of control now, and the White House seems unwilling to face up to the dangers that this poses.
Reagan has sent the congressional budget makers back to pick over the ashes of their efforts of the past seven months. They can most likely, perhaps even this week, fashion a $56-billion deficit-reduction plan that in fact contains billions of phony or temporary savings. At best, it will be a modest face-saving effort for a Congress that has to face the electorate next year.
In spite of all the naysaying from the White House, there has been impressive leadership from Congress on the budget issue this year from both parties and in both the Senate and the House. What defies understanding is why the White House has seemed particularly bent on embarrassing its own Republican leadership in the Senate, notably Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Domenici. In the process the President may well have shot down his own tax-reform program and seriously harmed GOP efforts to retain control of the Senate in 1986.
The President’s major effort on the budget dilemma this year was to give one speech and then stand back as if it were entirely someone else’s problem. He can no longer lay the blame on the profligate ways of Congress or previous administrations. This time the responsibility rests on the Oval Office desk, right next to the Harry Truman motto that the President seems to admire so much: “The buck stops here.”