For some weeks we have read much about the need for President Reagan to "compromise" on his proposed 1982 budget. Congress, it is said, has rejected it out of hand because it proposes further reductions in social spending while estimating large budget deficits for the foreseeable future. Thus Reagan managed to alienate both the Democrats who oppose reductions in social spending on principle and Republicans who oppose unbalanced budgets on principle.
What this whole budget problem really amounts to is not an impasse between the president and Congress, but an example of the inability of Congress itself to formulate a budget. And much of this has to do with the inability of Congress' leaders to deliver the votes for any budget that either (a) has a large deficit or (b) cuts politically popular programs.
Instead of blaming itself or its procedures, Congress has said, in effect, "We don't like the president's budget. But we aren't going to submit another budget that reduces the deficit without cutting Social Security, student loans or any other program that is politically popular. Moreover, we will not commit ourselves ahead of time to support such a budget even if the president consults with our leaders."
Under the circumstances, why should the president bargain with Tip O'Neill? Neither he nor any other Democrat has come up with a budget of his own, nor could O'Neill guarantee votes of his members even if he were to agree on some kind of compromise.
It is easy to understand why this is the case: the Democrats don't really want a budget compromise because they are having too much fun having it both ways. As long as they don't commit themselves to a budget of their own they are free to simultaneously criticize the president for having deficits that are too large and for proposing additional budget cuts.
I believe Reagan made two tragic errors in his handling of this budget mess. First, he conceded his willingness to consider tax increases to close the budget deficit. Second, he allowed himself to be dragged into a budget negotiation with Congress that he had no business being involved in.
These mistakes esentially let Congress, and especially the Democrats, off the hook. In lieu of budget cuts necessary to reduce the budget deficit, they can merely propose tax increases instead (frequently disguised as proposals to rescind or delay the already enacted tax cuts, which is the same thing, since the "tax cuts" only just keep the tax burden from rising). Thus, almost all discussion about a budget compromise now revolves around the question of how much taxes will be raised.
Moreover, he made it easy for Congress to abrogate its budget responsibilities and avoid confronting the tough issues--particularly in the area of Social Security. It is vastly easier for a member of Congress to propose a broad-based tax increase, whose cost is spread over many people than confront a highly organized, politically motivated spending constituency.
Since the president made the initial proposal to raise taxes in his Sept. 24 message and again in his February budget, without specifying the limits of how or how much taxes could be raised without causing economic harm to the country, he is partly responsible for the stampede to higher taxes that threatens to undo whatever good his economic program may have done. And by sanctioning negotiations with Congress over a budget compromise he has, in effect, committed himself to accepting its outcome or responsibility for its failure.
Therefore, he will ultimately bear the political fallout from a budget that will, of necessity, either raise taxes significantly, thereby endangering an economic recovery, make large cuts in politically popular programs or cause a breakdown in the budget-making process.
For these reasons, it is unlikely the president can win the budget debate. No matter how it turns out he will lose. He never should have become involved in any way in budget negotiations with Congress.
He should have forced Congress to come up with a budget, which the Budget Act of 1974 requires it to do by May 15. Then, when Congress was on record with whatever deficit, tax increases, or spending cuts it wished, he could have sat down and negotiated. Only instead of negotiating with a will-o'-the wisp, he would have had a real document, with real numbers, sanctioned by majority vote in both houses of Congress, in front of him.
At that point a compromise could have been forged, one for which Congress would have equally shared the responsibility. As it stands, Congress has no reason to be responsible, and the president is likely to bear most of the blame for either the breakdown of the budget process or the enactment of distasteful cuts in spending or tax increases.