Early this week, President Reagan told a cheering U.S. Chamber of Commerce that any tampering with the July 1, 1983, tax measure was non-negotiable. And last week, the day the House Banking Committee respectfully requested a moderate relaxation of the Federal Reserve's 5.5 percent monetary range ceiling, Chairman Paul Volcker told the Women's Economic Forum in New York that the Fed would persist in its present target ceiling no matter how much the deficit was brought under control.
Both Reagan and Volcker go out of their way to enforce each other's fetishes. Reagan has consistently cheered to the echo Volcker's over-tight money, even when it precipitated the recession last summer. Volcker, for his part, gratuitously observed to the ladies in New York that $90 billion or so could be lopped from the 1983 budget deficit without laying a finger on the president's July 1, 1983, tax measure--unfortunately, failing to specify how this miracle is to be achieved.
So here we are--stalemate on the first budget resolution, due on May 15, a debt ceiling extension also imminent, an economy and a society increasingly threatened, the world in turmoil and waiting for some sign that the United States has found its soul.
The president won't do it, the Federal Reserve won't do it. Where, under our constitutional system, is there strength to be found?
Congress has been my life work, and I have a great love for the old institution. It was for such a day as this, that we in Congress are called to the kingdom. In the impasse that lies ahead, Congress has a right and a duty to act for the public good. Here's how.
Let Congress, in its upcoming first budget and debt ceiling measures, present to Reagan the needed increase in the debt ceiling, with a rider providing for the repeal of the July 1, 1983, tax measure.
I know that the president has said, paraphrasing old Mayor Crump of Memphis, that Mr. Crump won't 'low no easy riders here. But as he sits in the Rose Garden contemplating whether to sign the debt ceiling/tax measure, he will have to face certain harsh realities.
If he vetoes, even though Congress fails to override, Congress may be in no mood to pass any debt ceiling legislation whatever if it contains no responsible way of ending the escalation of the debt. The president must know that large numbers of his own party are proclaiming that they will vote against such a naked piercing of the debt ceiling. Many Democrats, though for different reasons, would join them.
As the nation contemplates Mr. Reagan in the weeks ahead, he may not find it so easy to bring the nation to a halt by a veto and then try to blame it on Congress. And as soon as the debt ceiling/tax legislation is signed, the first budget resolution, which would then in good conscience direct the Federal Reserve to do its part and not frustrate the deficit-lowering process by tightening money further, can be finalized.
So all hinges on Ronald Reagan. But how could he be induced to sign a bill he doesn't like, even though the future of the nation is at stake? Is there any precedent in history for a ruler to sign into law a charter of which he disapproves?
Yes, there is a goodly precedent, one whose anniversary we shall all be celebrating on June 15. In 1215 the barons of England, frustrated at a ruler who combined great personal charm with a maximum of selfishness and obstinacy, came to King John at Runnymede, bearing the Magna Carta. King John signed, though he immediately, as a historian reports, "threw himself upon the ground in a fit of impotent rage, gnawing at sticks and bits of straw."
As with King John, so with King Ron. Let the barons of Congress present to him, not a Runnymede, but in the Rose Garden, a 1982 Magna Carta of Fiscal and Monetary Responsibility. Let the process of getting the legislation in place be a model of congressional art and industry. Let the president's signature, which I hope he can give, go forth as a sign of a new national unity and a determination to let common sense triumph over dogma.