THE PRESIDENT and his top political advisers have effectively dampened whatever small enthusiasm remained in Congress for further efforts to narrow the federal deficit. Encouraged by the economy's strong showing in recent months, they have been floating the pleasant idea that a faster recovery may release Congress from the dirty job of raising taxes to meet spending requirements.
After the president's Thursday news conference, administration aides hastened to correct any impression that they had abandoned support for contingency tax increases in 1986. But they acknowledged that action on such a measure has been put on indefinite hold. Meanwhile, the man in charge of developing the administration's tax policies, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, has been joyfully spreading the word that it is "entirely possible" that faster economic growth may obviate the need for a tax boost.
This call to inaction fell on receptive ears in Congress. After two days of hearings, the House Ways and Means Committee heaved a sigh of relief and concluded--sensibly--that no tax increases were possible without strong presidential leadership. The Senate wasted no time in granting unanimous consent for the Finance Committee to ignore the budget resolution and defer action on both tax increases and spending cuts until late in September. Meanwhile, a conference committee busied itself with a measure that would further reduce revenues by rescinding tax withholding on interest and dividends and extending the wasteful mortgage revenue bond authority for states and localities.
Despite this presidentially induced inertia, Congress retains, as Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski observed, "a consensus that something has to be done about revenues." That consensus arises from an unpleasant reality that the president's chief economic adviser, Martin Feldstein, pointed to in testimony before a Senate committee on Thursday. "It is sad but true," he noted, "that increases in the rate of growth reduce deficits by amounts that are very small relative to the projected deficits."
In fact, administration tax policies have made revenues far less sensitive to economic growth. Because tax rates and exemptions are now indexed to inflation, revenues will grow much more slowly relative to the size of the economy than in recent decades. And generous corporate tax breaks mean that the Treasury will not share in higher corporate profits if investment begins to pick up as it usually does in a recovery. Without legislative action, future deficits are likely to remain on the high side of $150 billion no matter how robust the recovery.
As Mr. Feldstein further observed, deficits that big will "inevitably require high real interest rates" --an outcome that does not augur well for continuing economic growth. Unfortunately for the country, these are facts that the president would rather ignore, at least until after the 1984 election.