Most Americans are familiar with the Cutting The Budget Syndrome.
Its first symptoms are the grumbling sounds that originate deep within the body politic. The President's science adviser checks his seismograph and flashes the results to his boss at once.
"Old tax-cut volcanoes are coming to life again," he warns. "We can hear the magma boiling. And we're also picking up some earthquake activity."
"All right," the president says resignedly. "Let me know when the temblors start coming every five minutes. I'll begin writing a budget-reduction message to Congress."
In the next scene, the president is on the podium of the House chamber addressing a joint session of Congress.
Jaw set, eyes flashing, his forefinger pointed toward outer space, the president says we can and we must cut spending and reduce taxes.
"Take 2," a TV director barks in an unseen control room, and in the next instant 50 million TV screens across America are filled with pictures of applauding congressmen. The Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee applauds. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee applauds. The minority leaders applaud. The Cabinet applauds. Even the justices of the Supreme Court applaud.
At this point, Cutting The Budget is great fun. The 535 members of the House and Senate enjoy the warm comaraderie of unanimity: They're all for economy, they're all for befriending the voter, they're all for getting themselves reelected.
Only in its final stages does the Cutting The Budget Syndrome become painful. Suddenly there are 537 viewpoints among these 535 legislators -- one for each of them and two for the president, who reserves the right to second-guess everybody's programs, including his own. The only inity that remains among those who appluaded the economy speech is that they al think the place to start cutting is on the other fellow's benefits.
But keep your hands off things that benefit real American patriots -- like the people who contribute the money that swings votes. THE SPECIFICS
If this column were to stop now, it would be like the Congress it criticizes: long on generalities and short on specifics. So let me tell you what readers have been saying about proposals to cut the budget.
Three of you who wrote about the Census commented on the broadcast announcements urging people to cooperate with the count so that they would get their fair share of the money Washington will be doling out.
All three reactions were the same: "Some of these programs that are being used as bait," as one man put it, are the very ones that should be trimmed first when money is tight.
Herman J. Leavey and his wife are retired and living on Social Security.
Herman objects to proposals to cut Social Security benefits while the government continues to subsidize hundreds of expensive programs we could live without.
For example, he points out that every member of Congress supplies his constituents with free leaflets, bulletins and fact sheets on such subjects as bark mulch, natural artistry around your house, what to do when your freezer stops, growing ornamental bamboo, protecting shade trees during home construction, growing pansies, pruning ornamental shrubs and vines, the house fly and growing bonsai.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), a great champion of economy in government, was incensed at the suggestion that it's time to stop paying millions in subsidies to farmers who grow the tobacco whose use we try to curb through the expenditure of other millions of tax dollars.
Sen. Hollings says there is "no conclusive proof" that cigarettes and lung cancer are related. And the Cutting The Budget Syndrome shows no conclusive proof of a relationship between applauding a call for economy and being willing to forgo one's own federal benefits.
District Liners think Congress spends too much money on itself and on its perks. Foreign junkets that serve no visible purpose except self-indulgence are special targets.
Readers are not opposed to helping the sick, the aged, the poor, the uneducated or other disadvantaged groups. They are opposed to programs that seem ill-conceived, ineptly administered, wasteful or subject to fraud.
They care about the environment but think now is a time to pinch pennies.They vote "Yes" on hiring enough inspectors to keep food, air, water and government clean. They vote "No" on more parks, playgrounds or wildlife expenditures "for now." The words "for now" turns up often.
The words that trigger the hottest flow of lava from our Mount District Line Volcano are "waste" and "fraud." Readers think curbing waste and fraud would save enough billions to restore all the welfare cuts and still leave the budget with a surplus. So do I.