A budget offered to the Congress and the country last week would have pleased the advocates of a nuclear-weapons freeze and those who want to balance the budget faster than President Reagan.
It would have restored last year's cuts in education and Medicaid and provided an extra 13 weeks of unemployment insurance for those who have lost their jobs.
It had other interesting features, including a nickel-a-gallon gasoline tax to repair our deteriorating highways and improve mass transit systems. That is an idea Secretary of Transportration Drew Lewis has been trying, without success, to sell the president.
Despite the appeal of most of these proposals to various constituencies--and the controversy at least some of them stir in other quarters--chances are you heard nothing about this proposal.
It was offered by the Congressional Black Caucus, and it was trounced.
There is a perfectly good case to be made that it deserved to be defeated. A lot of people--myself included--would have gagged on the elimination of all new strategic-weapons systems that it proposed.
But this budget was not just defeated by the House of Representatives. It was ignored. And that is what gripes the 18 men and women who make up the caucus and who worked hard at putting the budget proposal together.
The black caucus got into the budget-drafting business in 1981, when President Reagan challenged them at a meeting to "come up with something better" if they didn't like his way of reducing deficits.
Last year, and again this year, they drafted a counterbudget designed, in the words of Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D- Md.), to "give people one reasonable ray of hope" against a "hopelessness . . . that simply cannot be measured."
They were working within the system, as people are supposed to do. Although no blacks are currently assigned to the House Budget Committee, they mounted a staff effort from their individual offices, drawing on the expertise of their varying committee roles, and put together the pieces of the budget. Then, as serious people are supposed to do, they set out to build coalition support. They talked to some 100 labor, environmental, disarmament and other issue groups, and lined up 15 of them as co- sponsors when they introduced their budget at an April press conference.
Inside the House, they played by the rules, as you are supposed to do. They met with the party leadership (all of them being Democrats) and they took their numbers to the Congressional Budget Office for official authentication.
And then, at the proper time, they brought their proposal to the floor. And they were ignored. Well, not totally ignored. Some white liberal Democrats told them that what they were doing was wonderful, and they were with them, heart and soul.
Two Republicans--Reps. James Martin of North Carolina and John H. Rousselot of California--cared enough to challenge them briefly on their tax and defense proposals. The exchanges on those two points did not take more than five minutes.
For the rest, the House ignored them, as the caucus members went through their prepared statements. The mood was, "Let them talk. Then we can get back to the serious business."
That patronizing, barely concealed impatience got to the members of the caucus. Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York, who once ran for nomination as president and is quitting politics this year, exploded at one point.
"Here we come again today," she said, "and everybody wants to get rid of us, get us off the floor, because we are taking up their time. Well, we're going to take up the time because it is important to recognize that 18 members of the House of Representatives have been responsive in terms of accepting certain challenges. Is it beyond the imagination," she asked, "that there is the capacity . . . in 18 individuals who happen to be black to come up with . . . a document . . . to deal with the issues . . . and not merely with numbers?"
Still, no one rose to debate the budget seriously--as other budget proposals had been debated and would be debated. Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan turned his fire on the leaders of his own party, who, he said, choose "to totally ignore this work product. They do not criticize it. Leaders of the party will not praise it. They just do not see that it exists. It is the invisible document."
That is nothing new, of course. Ralph Ellison wrote in his classic novel, "Invisible Man," "I am invisible. . . . I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
And he told of the effects of that "invisibility." "You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse, and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful."
That was in 1952. In 1982, the Congressional Black Caucus budget was defeated, after perfunctory debate, 322-86.