The budget votes were a ringing victory for President Reagan, and an extraordinary display of political power. There's been nothing quite like it since Lyndon Johnson's first years in the White House. But that parallel offers a cautionary signal to the present tenant. It is the exceses of the Johnson years that started a trend in Americans' views of their government, and their taxes, that is now culminating, many years later, in the Reagan budget.
Mr. Reagan has a winning manner, and he made a lot of phone calls to congressmen. But that wasn't what produced the majorities. It was a widespread public resentment of a certain political and fiscal tradition that created the Reagan presidency, and not the other way around. There's a lot to be sorry about in the budget that is now well on its way to passage. But first you need to give careful examination to the forces that are thrusting it forward at such speed. In retrospect, you can clearly see their beginnings in the middle 1960s.
It wasn't Vietnam alone. It was also the War on Poverty, with its peculiarly abrasive and adversary style of reform. As mayors began to find that federal money seemed to be financing the demonstrations in front of their houses, a wedge of distrust and disapproval began to separate traditional Democrats from their government. For the first time in a generation, they began to raise basic questions about the government's good faith -- questions that were enormously amplified by the illegalities of Mr. Nixon's first term. After 1972 there followed eight years of weak presidencies, during which the subcommittees of a fragmented Congress sought to protect themselves through alliances with narrow constituencies.
The result, by 1980, was a lobbyists' budget in which each line was vociferousy defended by somebody while the budget as a whole was defended by nobody. People increasingly felt that their tax money was being used mainly to send checks to somebody else. The accumulating budget deficits were an indicator of the unpopularity of the enterprise; neither presidents nor Congress dared attempt to raise the taxes to balance those outlays. Instead, they lamented that the budget was uncontrollable -- another contribution to the erosion of people's confidence in their government. The budget became the focus of the deep grievances and even fears that now fuel the Reagan engine. In terms of its general targets, Mr. Reagan's budget does not go outside the limits of recent American experience. If he gets all of his tax legislation precisely as he drafted it, the nation's tax burden in relation to personal income will be back just where it was 1977, when President Carter took office. By 1984, the budget -- if it works out exactly as Mr. Reagan plans it -- will be just about the same size in relation to the national economy as in the early 1970s. Defense spending, despite the Reagan increases, would be much lower, in relation both to the rest of the budget and to the economy, than it was under President Kennedy.
The real change will take place in the internal structure of the budget. Everything else, except defense, will be squeezed to accommodate the rapid and continuing rise of the pensions and the health care associated with them -- above all, Social Security, Medicaid and veterans' benefits. The implications here go well beyond the usual scuffle over federal fiscal policy.
For the past three decades, the distribution of income in this country has been remarkably stable. The distance between rich and poor has neither grown nor shrunk. Congress has slowly made the income tax system less progressive, lightening the burden at the top. But it has simultaneously maintained a balance by increasing the direct benefits to the people at the bottom. That process, incidentally, helps explain the difficulty in balancing the budget.
Now the tax cutting at the top is being greatly accelerated, while the social benefits at the bottom are being diminished. That foreshadows the sharpest shift in income distribution among Americans since the 1940s, and in the opposite direction.
Mr. Reagan is responding, very effectively, to the powerful political currents that brought him to office. In this moment of triumph, there is not much inclination at the White House to look beyond. But those budget votes imply a nation in which many families will live in greater want and strain than they do today, while the majority gets richer.It is the job of a president to rebuild the political base for public policy that sets limits to the disparities in American wealth and poverty.