The new spirit of cooperation in Washington has bogged down in the old budget game of the Reagan years.
President Bush sent his budget changes to Congress two weeks ago with the flourishes appropriate to a kindler, gentler nation, but it soon became apparent that his famed flexible freeze is more of the same old formula of cutting domestic spending, even in areas where Bush says he is initiating new programs.
Congress understandably is calling on the Administration to provide details. Bush calls for negotiations. Congress says it will negotiate when the Administration provides some firm figures to negotiate. Bush and Budget Director Richard G. Darman say negotiate now as a means of coming up with the figures.
The process is exacerbated by Administration delays in making appointments below the Cabinet secretary level. Last Wednesday, the White House told the House Agriculture Committee that Secretary Clayton Yeutter had been authorized to work with Congress on a plan to negotiate cuts in crop subsidies. As with many items in the budget, the White House proposed alternative methods of making the cuts, but did not endorse any of them. A Bush agricultural adviser said the negotiations will take a little time, however, because Yeutter still is assembling his staff. "Once the people are in place--the new team--I know the budget will be of major importance," aide Cooper Evans said. Such scenes are being repeated throughout the executive branch.
Legal budget deadlines will not wait. But Congress is reluctant to proceed with making the necessary cuts itself because the House and Senate members would then risk taking sole blame for reductions in federal services. This is the sort of stuff that can be used against them in future election campaigns.
The twisting of budget terms also is creating problems. Ronald Reagan always maintained that he was not cutting programs when he held spending levels even. Reagan would insist that a program could not be considered to be suffering cuts when it was getting just as much money as the year before. On the other hand, he always boasted of massive savings that were not actual savings, but the amounts of money that would have been spent if a program had been allowed to increase at some exorbitant rate.
The Congressional Budget Office is correct, however, when it considers the "base-line budget" the amount of money, allowing for inflation, that a program would have to get in the succeeding year to provide the same service as in the previous year for as many people as are eligible for the service. Thus, the dollar figure might be higher, but none of the individuals would be getting any more service. Anything less is a cut. If a family spends $9,000 for food one year and budgets $9,000 for the next, it will eat less if inflation drives up food prices.
Bush has carried this terminological trickery one step further by claiming that he has frozen defense spending and many domestic programs in like fashion. But defense is getting an inflation adjustment of $10.2 billion while the domestic programs are being held to the same dollar amounts as in the current budget year. Thus his flexible freeze really is a $9.6 billion cut from the base-line budget.
Neither side can afford to let the game drag on, particularly with the financial community expressing jitters about inflation and the budget deficit. Both sides better start talking figures soon and agree on the terms. It's time really to talk turkey.