If there is an award for exemplary consistency in the face of massive confusion, the 1981 winner would have to be Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico. In his first year as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, the first year of the Reagan presidency and the first year of Republican control of the Senate, the former mayor of Albuquerque--a man with few pretensions--has been far more steadfast and clear sighted than people with much more experience or presumed expertise.
His views have not always prevailed with the administration or in Congress. But on one critical issue, Domenici is probably not just more consistent but more correct than many of the flashier performers at either end of the Pennsylvania Avenue budget debate.
He began the year by saying something would have to be done about Social Security and the other federal entitlement programs. He ended the year by saying the same thing. And when people start listening to him and showing some of his consistency and political courage, the chances of dealing with the persistent budget hemorrhage will improve dramatically.
A year ago this week, when most Republicans were basking in the euphoria of the Reagan victory and the capture of the Senate, Domenici was already poring over the numbers that made mincemeat of the president-elect's easy-sounding campaign promises.
In an interview, he told me, "You never heard Pete Domenici make the argument that you could balance the budget, have significant defense increases and multi-year tax cuts simply by eliminating waste and fraud. You have to restructure the entitlement programs, either by adjusting the inflation indexes or redrawing the eligibility rules."
The Reagan administration made some marginal changes in the eligibility rules for such entitlement programs as food stamps and student loans. But it ducked the political risks of tampering with the $24 billion-a-year price of the cost-of-living escalators in Social Security and the other retirement programs.
Instead, it opted for an exaggerated and misguided effort to slash the benefits for workers choosing early retirement. And the firestorm that greeted the ill-conceived initiative convinced the Democrats in Congress that Social Security would be such a made-to- order issue for the 1982 election that they have blocked every effort since then to find a sensible legislative approach to entitlements.
In this cross fire of partisanship and procrastination, Domenici has stood his ground. He was on his feet just before the congressional adjournment, proposing a sane four-point approach to the looming budget deficits of the next two years. Once again, he spoke as a reasonable man in a debate too often characterized by hysterics.
His approach was balanced. He would give the president what he wants for defense next year, then cut the real growth (above inflation) to 5 percent, instead of the 7 percent Reagan has dogmatically demanded.
He would recover for the Treasury some of the $250 billion in "tax expenditures" or loophole losses that Congress this year foolishly expanded by one-third.
He would freeze the dollar amount of discretionary domestic federal spending, most of it grants-in-aid to state and local governments. This would force those governments to absorb the inroads of inflation by squeezing the dollars harder. But it would avoid further cuts in the area that absorbed more than its share in 1981--thus relieving the anxieties of governors and mayors.
Finally, he would reduce the growth of the entitlement programs, not by reducing benefits to present recipients, but by trimming the future cost-of-living adjustments by 25 percent.
In combination, those measures could save $160 billion in the next three years--$48 billion in tax loophole closing and the rest in scaled-back spending--and "put us on the path to a balanced budget," Domenici said.
This year, that balanced approach was not endorsed by the administration, so it failed in the Congress. Next year, an election year, will be no easier.
But Domenici, who has proved his consistency, rightly said, "We will have to do it, if not this year, then the next; and if not next year, it may be too late to head off serious long-term economic damage."