"God, give me the strength to face a fact though it slay me," Thomas Huxley said.
Congress should heed the admonition, although the facts it must face are only painful, not mortal.
Less than 24 hours after the Senate narrowly decided to keep alive its basic fiscal management tool--the budget process--I was bombarded by senators who wondered why we have to go through this ordeal at all. "Surely," some say, "a better way exists." Others mutter dark threats against the entire budget process.
In reaction to increasing dismay with the budget process, the Senate Majority Leader, Howard Baker, took to these pages last Sunday to say in essence that the budget process was fundamentally sound but needed streamlining. I agree, but I wonder if even a streamlined budget process that must bear unpleasant facts can survive in a polarized Congress.
The more thoughtful among my colleagues contend that without a functioning center in the Senate--a consensus that can govern despite increasingly partisan warfare--the budget process and the entire Senate will flounder. Certainly, finding a functioning center has been more difficult this year than at any time in my 11 years in the Senate.
But in reality, the Senate is merely going through what the House of Representatives endured last year. Then, three basic budget propositions came to the House floor. Apologizing for any injustices that generalizing might inflict, I would characterize the three propositions as representing the left, the right and the center. Against all logic, and the writings of innumerable political scientists, the center proposition received the least number of votes.
My good friend, Rep. Leon Panetta, wrote the centrist proposal. He took the more extreme notions of the other two plans, compromised more or less in the middle, and failed to persuade enough members of either side to join him. 2 In the Senate Budget Committee this year, finding a true centrist position was equally frustrating. On no proposal would half of the Democrats and half of the Republicans join hands. Despite the coordinated efforts of Sen. Lawton Chiles, the ranking minority member of our committee, and me, we could not persuade enough of our colleagues. Our proposal in committee failed to pass. I had to resort to a clearly more partisan tack to fulfill our basic responsibilities to produce a budget for Senate consideration.
On the Senate floor, the situation was at least as dicey. After weeks of wrangling, the Senate passed a budget with 21 Republicans and 29 Democrats voting for final approval. While not strictly speaking equally bipartisan, the final result on the surface represents a centrist position. However, a closer analysis reveals that the 50 votes supporting the resolution came from an unnatural coalition brought together by a temporary parliamentary crisis.
This gets me back to my point. Can the budget process, or the appropriations process, survive without a centrist coalition based upon realistic policy goals? Is the Senate vote Thursday night, the first stumbling step toward revival of true bipartisanship, or merely a capricious result based upon the residue of a variety of partisan and personal motivations?
Finally, can Congress deal with the facts of life? With high deficits beyond the immediate control of anyone of any ideology, a weak economic recovery, an unprecedented balance of trade deficit caused by an extraordinarily strong American dollar and the largest peacetime defense increases in our history? The budget process that brings these painful facts to the Congress becomes itself just as painful.
And as in most instances in life, it is the bearer of bad tidings that is blamed, not the tidings themselves.
Killing the budget process today would not change the facts. It would merely guarantee that Congress could act as though it didn't know the facts.
I cannot conclude even this cursory review of the events unfolding in the Congress without mentioning that the macroeconomic impact of our actions upon fiscal years 1984 and 1985 will be minimal. Even the most ardent economist cannot make a strong case that the difference between the $2.6 billion in new taxes in fiscal 1984 supported by the president, and the $9 billion voted by the Senate, will have any measurable impact. And on the spending side, levels set in a First Resolution are merely target ceilings for spending, subject to actions by Congress and the president.
Even at best then, the spending and taxing levels debated on the Senate floor these past weeks have been only guidelines. So at least as far as the 1984 and 1985 budget levels are concerned, the dispute in Congress is not about substance.
It is a worse kind of dispute--a dispute on form and symbolism. If any one expects the budget process to be able to resolve a dispute of this nature, then, indeed, the budget process cannot succeed.
It may be, however, that we get lucky and allow the budget process to be what it was intended to be--a practical policy tool to help Congress make the day-to-day fiscal decisions it must make. If we can get back to that concept, then the budget process will survive, even if Congress still would rather die than face the facts.