This reporter spent much of his apprenticeship in one of the nation's great legislative chambers: the City Council of Cambridge, Mass. An ex-mayor named Ed Crane dominated the council. Crane weighed 225 pounds if he weighed an ounce and was as fierce and shrewd as he was big. He couldn't resist a brawl, and at the end of one particularly bitter combat he bellowed these words of wisdom:
"I don't get shook up over these things. The city won't blow up, the sun won't rise in the west . . . . I've been through these things before. It's all part of the great game of politics."
Crane's observation applies very nicely to the goings on in Washington over the past few weeks. President Reagan's triumph on the fiscal 1982 budget involved so much political symbolism and such a mind-boggling array of programs that it has inspired extravagant commentary on both sides. But the sun still won't rise in the west.
Months or even years may pass before the true significance of the recent votes become clear. Meanwhile, though, the exaggerated political and journalistic analyses are enveloping the event in fashionable mythology.
Myth No. 1: The budget resolution represents a major turning back of the clock and repudiation of social spending.
Counting inflation, the reductions represent real cuts in government spending of roughly 10 percent. Now it's true that these cuts focused on the three-fourths of the budget that isn't military. But many of the deepest cuts affect programs that had been created -- or expanded sharply -- only in recent years.
Consider subsidized student loans. The huge expansion began in 1978 after Congress removed income eligibility ceilings. The budget cuts approved by the Senate would reimpose some income limits. Or take public service jobs, which would be eliminated at a saving of about $3.8 billion; the large growth here dates back to the 1974-75 recession and the early Carter years. Or consider the emergency energy grants for the poor, which would be cut about $400 million from $2.3 billion. These started at $200 million in 1977.
Myth No. 2: The budget cuts were politically tough to make.
In fact, they were relatively easy because most of them hit groups -- the poor and the cities -- that don't belong to the Republican political coalition or affect Democratic defectors in the House.
More than one-third of the cuts in the Senate bill came from eight programs: food stamps, down $1.9 billion (15 percent from current spending); school lunches, $1.2 billion (about one-third, though much of the cuts reflects reduced subsidies for higher-income recipients); Medicare, $1.4 billion (4 percent); Medicaid, $1 billion (6 percent); unemployment compensation, $1.7 billion (9 percent); public assistance, $1.1 billion (13 percent); Social Security, $2.1 billion (1 percent); and public service jobs.
Perhaps another 10 percent ($3 billion to $4 billion) involved other reduced grants to states and localities. Another 10 percent was pure fiction: rthe shifting of $3.7 billion in spending off the strategic oil reserve into an off-budget account. Many of the other cuts affected programs that the White House particularly disliked, such as solar energy promotion, the new consumer cooperative bank and legal services for the poor.
Myth No. 3: The White House abused the new budget process.
For anyone outside Washington, the recriminations over who did what to the budget process must seem impenetrable. "Reconciliation" simply means this: Congress passes an overall spending limit and then, finding that existing laws and spending commitments exceed the total, reconciles the parts with the whole. The reconciliation measure changes the underlying laws and spending decisions to stay within the total.
This is as sensible as it sounds. That it took Congress nearly two centuries to arrive at this process attests to the legislature's instinctive affection for anarchy. Democrats make two complaints: first, that no one expected that reconciliation would occur so early in the year (they say it was planned for September, not June) or would include sweeping changes in existing laws; second, that so much was packed into the reconciliation bill that Congress didn't know what it was voting on.
So what else is new? Congress wouldn't be Congress if it always knew what it was doing. Many of the things that were recently undone in obscurity, misunderstanding and deceit were probably enacted in similar circumstances. As for the timing and scope of the reconciliation package, they reflected the changed political climate. Nothing in the 1974 Congressional Budget Act said these things couldn't happen.
That they did, as Ed Crane would put it, simply constitutes part of the great game of politics. The meaningful questions about this episode lie elsewhere. Will the coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats that passed the package in the House endure? Will the budget reductions have their desired economic effect?
To a large extent, the budget struggle diverted attention from other issues and the administration's often sloppy performance in other areas. Now this huge political attraction is vanishing. And budget cutting won't be so easy next time. Significant reductions increasingly will threaten programs with large constituencies such as Social Security. These changes work to splinter the makeshift coalition.
The budget's economic consequences are no less ambiguous. The administration hopes lower spending will reduce "inflationary expectations," induce a decline in interest rates and spur a buoyant economic recovery. But skepticism remains. The investment banking firm of Salomon Brothers thinks spending and borrowing will exceed government projections by $25 billion. Political accommodations made to pass the budget (on sugar prices, for instance) could raise inflation.
Reagan won a great victory. It's better to win than to lose. Reputation counts enormously in politics; victories tend to build on each other, as do defeats. A White House respected for its political skills has as easier time commanding attention and allegiance. But the headlines of the moment may be fleeting. For it is also true, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, that in politics a week is a long time.