The budget mess of 1987 makes one yearn with nostalgia for the simple days of fast-talking David A. Stockman, boll weevils, Trojan horses and the woodshed. The mess gets messier as Democrats in Congress try to find a way to snooker President Reagan into a tax increase and the President offers to negotiate budget cuts (not tax increases, of course) if Congress will allow a vote on his pet solution to it all, the balanced-budget constitutional amendment.
While the President clears brush and rides horseback on his mountain ranch, he might also consider taking himself to the woodshed following his disclosure that back in 1980, when he was promising a balanced budget if elected, he knew all along that the figures would never add up without red ink. Talk about Trojan horses.
Before going on vacation, Congress fixed things in the usual fashion--by postponing them. It put off until September the chore of raising the $2-trillion-plus federal debt limit, which was being used as a blackjack for the reinstitution of an enforcement mechanism for the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law. Now the President's Office of Management and Budget says that this year's deficit will be smaller than expected because of a tax windfall and that the deficits in the years beyond, while being larger than earlier estimated, will continue to decline. Congressional fiscal experts say that that's all wrong and that the deficits will grow back to nearly $200 billion by 1989.
The grand goal is to build a house of cards that will not fall down for two years; that fudges the deficit issue until after the 1988 election in a way that will preserve the remnants of the Reagan revolution but still put blame for the deficit on the President, and that will allow the next President, either Republican or Democrat, to avoid a major tax increase in 1989. A clever structure, some have convinced themselves, can achieve all of the above.
The 1988 fiscal year starts Oct. 1, but the tangled issue will not likely be solved by then. By Christmas, perhaps. The President talks about negotiations, but with about as much prospect of their occurring as his going to Managua to negotiate with Daniel Ortega. Rather, he will continue to spread the fantasy gospel of an Economic Bill of Rights and rail at taxers and spenders. There will be continuing resolutions. The President will threaten veto and perhaps even carry out his threat. There will be phony scare stories about government grinding to a halt.
The solution, of course, is for Republicans and Democrats in Congress to settle on a budget that meets national needs and then raise the revenue required to finance it. That is how budgeting is done in most places--even in states like California with a balanced-budget requirement. Congress would take this package to the White House and persuade the President that the deficit problem is so serious that a modest increase in taxes is essential. The President would make a speech filled with his old anti-government rhetoric, but would accept the deal. The entire process would take one week, and Congress and the President could then get on to other problems.
Constitutional amendments and GrammRudman gimmicks are no substitute for political will and leadership, and honest negotiation and compromise. To the woodshed with them all, and don't let them come out until the job is done.