Even if you had watched the entire five days of House debate on television, you would have had almost no idea of what was really going on in the budget battles last week. Seven budget plans and scores of amendments were offered. The debate was conducted under a highly unusual rule designed --with an eye to November--to allow members to vote for as many budgets as they liked: the last one to pass would win. Until almost the end, it seemed that three or more plans would pass. But when it was finally over at 2 a.m. Friday, all had been defeated.
This, remember, is a nonbinding budgetary sketch, not a budget. The numbers that were thrown back and forth all week bear almost no relation to what the government will eventually raise or spend. There were, nevertheless, important differences among the proposed plans. The Republican plan, which garnered the most votes, proposed the most money for defense, the least for social programs, the smallest tax increase and, ironically, the biggest deficits.
But the substance of the various plans and amendments was not often uppermost in members' minds. Factions offered amendments whose purpose was to induce other factions to vote against a particular budget, or to force others into embarrassing "grandmas versus submarines" choices. Some Democrats wanted a Republican budget to win so that Republicans could be given sole credit for an economic mess in November. Others wanted to reassert Democratic leadership in the House by passing the Democrats' plan.
The coalition that passed the budget last year-- core Republicans, moderate "gypsy moths" and conservative Democratic "boll weevils"--splintered along new entomological lines with the emergence of the "yellow jackets." These are a group of conservative true-believers who objected to compromises that had been made in the Republican plan. Their appearance shattered the plans of the leadership of both parties. When the debate ended, it was clear only that each faction was strong enough to block every other while none was strong enough to win.
The missing player was the president. Having proposed a budget that his own party quickly rejected, the president decided to sit out the rest of the season, leaving Congress to make the unpalatable choices his budget had failed to make. He spent the crucial days at the California ranch, limiting himself mostly to criticism of congressional delay. One would have thought he could have bestirred himself to a greater sense of urgency--if only to be seen to be trying to do something about the sky-high interest rates on the eve of his trip to Europe.
After it returns from the Memorial Day recess, the House will probably pass a budget resolution. Although having a budget resolution brings no economic improvement, enough members realize that not having one is the worst possible outcome. It sends frightening signals to already anxious financial markets. The real test comes next September when a binding budget resolution must be passed. Who knows what new form of insect life will have evolved by then?