"Gridlock" gained popular note as the term used during the New York transit strike to describe a situation where cars so filled every inch of street that not one could move. A massive parking lot was created in which all intersections were blocked by crossing traffic.
New York now has signs warning motorists not to create gridlock.
If Congress and the administration aren't careful, and lucky, in 1983, we could see legislative gridlock that paralyzes our ability to do the nation's work.
Yet, the November elections indicate to me that what the nation is saying, like those signs in New York, is "proceed carefully and don't create a gridlock."
All the elements for gridlock exist, at first blush:
* Many newly elected and reelected members of Congress may feel compelled by their campaign advertising on the issues of Social Security and similar items to take unyielding stances on issues that demand flexible solutions.
* We will have deficits in the range of $185 billion to $200 billion for each of the next three or four years, if we continue present policies.
* We will have quite high unemployment throughout 1983, unless we get a recovery that is substantially more robust than now forecast by almost every respected economist.
* Under present economic and monetary policies, real economic growth, for a variety of reasons, seems likely to be no higher than 3 percent.
* Even courageous action by Congress on spending, equal to the historic spending restraint Congress has enacted the past two years, will still yield deficits in 1983 and 1984 higher than any experienced in America's history.
Thus, Congress and the administration may be manic-depressive -- tossed between deficit depression and unemployment mania. It will take extraordinary maturity and leadership to move forward, but we can if we recognize our true situation.
Let's recognize one fact: if 1983 is merely going to be a prelude to the November 1984 elections, both Congress and the administration will suffer at the polls. Neither side will make a convincing case to the electorate if the nation's business has been neglected. If Congress is setting up the administration, or vice versa, both sides should remember an old New Mexico saying, "When you go to dig a grave for your enemy, dig two."
Let's recognize another fact: America's economic and budget woes are not unique. Even a cursory reading of world economic news indicates that other countries are sharing our economic woes and tasting the political consequences of their own internal gridlock. The Schmidt government fell because of its inability to address Germany's deficit and unemployment dilemma. Japan, the model for economic affairs, is undergoing a political reordering brought on by low growth.
The economic tension within these two economic showcases and its political consequences provide us a look into our own future, if we do not address our problems in a forthright, courageous manner. Suppose there is high unemployment lingering throughout most of the year coupled with low economic growth and very high deficits. Then what is prudent policy?
Simply, prudent policy is a monetary policy that allows economic growth, continued fiscal restraint in domestic programs, moderation in defense buildup plans, carefully selected increases in revenues and a recognition that there are basic services that government should provide.
Let's take each of these in order.
* We must urge the Federal Reserve Board to accommodate the growth this nation needs.
* We should continue the freeze on domestic, discretionary appropriations through 1986, a remarkable feat of fiscal restraint.
* We should have the courage to solve the impending bankruptcy of Social Security and not depend merely upon raising taxes to do so. There must also be some scaling back of the immense resources we plan to commit to pension plans in the future.
* Since we don't have the money to pay for the entire defense buildup, we should slow it down slightly.
We should increase the federal gasoline tax to pay for the highways and transportation needed for the nation's commerce.
* We should adopt an oil-import fee (an idea that I have pushed for many years, unsuccessfully). Such a fee would aid domestic producers and workers and impose a tax on nations that have, through their petroleum pricing actions, helped bring America and the rest of the industrial world to the present economic strait.
* We should begin repairing other parts of America's physical structure, because our future growth and jobs depend upon it.
* We must consider whether the nation can afford indexing the tax code when we have made such large spending promises in the areas of entitlements and defense.
* We should resist the urge for make-work federal jobs of short duration that contribute nothing to the long-term solutions of the nation's problems.
Now, if we do all I advocate (and the odds are against it), we will still have higher deficits, higher unemployment and slower growth than we would like in 1983. But we will have laid the groundwork for declining deficits in the future, continued low inflation, creation of private sector jobs and further easing of interest rates.
If we insist on promising that unemployment or deficits or growth will be better than we know will occur, we could blunder our way into legislative gridlock. Congress and the administration can avoid this only if each is willing to tolerate a respite from political warfare.
We barely avoided gridlock in 1982. We can avoid it in 1983, but only if we begin our efforts now. If we wait until spring, when the congressional budget is formally considered, it may be too late for prudence to prevail.