Have you given up your fair share of government subsidies in order to make the Reagan program work? If you haven't, you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
"If everyone gives up his fair share, this country is capable of a lot of budget restraint," says Gov. Richard Snelling of Vermont.
But if not, the very people who claim most fervently to be behind the president's program may be the ones who bring it down.
Snelling is a Republican, a conservative, chairman of the National Governors' Association and a Reagan man. He says again and again--so you won't misunderstand --that he supports the goals of the Reagan economic plan. In fact, he thinks them essential to the nation's health.
So when friends of the program such as Snelling go public with their worries, they bear attention.
In a nutshell, his fears are these: first, that the president is forcing his budget cuts at too fast a pace for the affected people to absorb; and second, that the burden of budget cuts is being unfairly loaded onto the poor. "You can't have a safety net that works for 60 percent of the people but has massive holes for the other 40 percent," he says.
You can, of course, but for how long? "People agree with the generality of restraint," Snelling says. "But when you translate it into specific program cuts, they may not agree with what is being done. Some of the short-run things we are doing may not be in the president's long-term best interest." The Republicans, he thinks, are going to lose some votes next November.
The governor's rhetorical style is to ask himself questions, answer them, then ask some more.
"Are the CETA job programs perfect? No," he tells himself forcefully. "Are the goals of the program valid? Yes. How long would it take to switch CETA workers onto private payrolls? In Vermont, maybe three or four years. But we can't do it right away."
As it happens, he and the other governors must do it right away. The first round of budget cuts falls heavily on social programs: job training, medical treatment, day care and other social services. Some states, among them those with oil and coal resources to tax, can afford to ease the pain of the transition to a lower level of social services. "But many states will fail to absorb the punch," Snelling says. "Some populations will be seen to be abandoned."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ledger, luckier people will enjoy tax cuts, new stock options, and other benefits doled out by Congress and the administration.
Snelling reverts to his rhetorical style:
"I am for tax cuts," he says. "Was the 70 percent tax rate good for America? No. But was it reasonable to drop it to 50 percent all at once? No." Not when the social-welfare budget was being so sharply cut. And why shouldn't something more be asked of the rich? "I've wondered for years why someone should get a tax deduction on money he borrows to buy a yacht," the governor says.
Take another example: the mortgage-interest deduction versus food stamps.
Congress has said that a poorly paid worker--a divorced woman, say, with two children--should no longer receive food stamps. She works, she chose to bear her children; it is her responsibility to feed them. If giving up food stamps means reducing her standard of living, that's life.
But what about the mortage-interest deduction for not-so-poorly-paid homeowners? We work, we chose to buy our houses; shouldn't it be our responsibilty to pay for them without special help from the federal tax code? If the working poor have to give up food subsidies, homeowners ought to give up housing subsidies. The governor didn't bring up this comparison, but that's what sharing the burden is all about.
In the real world, we will probably cling to our housing subsidies, full Social Security, veterans benefits and other forms of federal aid. For the second round of budget cuts next year, we may look again to social services for the poor. But Snelling thinks there's a limit there.
"It seems to me," he says, "that the equal-rights concept can fairly be said to assume some rational standard of social justice. The very heart of the Constitution sets forth limits with respect to what the majority can do to the minority."
If the non-poor will not accept their fair share of budget cuts, the Reagan program will have to be rewritten--with higher taxes, bigger budget deficits and smaller defense budgets, at least for the time being. "The Reagan program is do-able," Snelling insists, "but we have to go more slowly if we mean to make it last."