Darned if I can explain it, but there are some straws in the wind suggesting that the budget debate may go beyond the narrow bounds President Reagan has set for it. If that happens, the country will be the winner.
In the past week, a variety of comments have hinted that people are catching on to a couple of important facts. They are beginning to figure out that Reagan is just posturing on the deficit problem, and that his proposed "solution" would still leave the country facing massive red-ink hemorrhages when he leaves office.
Second, they are beginning to grasp that there really is no way to get a handle on the runaway deficits without looking hard at the revenue side of the picture as well as the spending figures.
These points are being made all across the political spectrum, as people of various parties and philosophies react to the huge size of the problem the president has left on Congress' doorstep.
A blue-ribbon business leadership group, the Committee for Economic Development, has called for a slowdown in Reagan's defense buildup and, if necessary, a temporary or partial suspension of tax-indexing, or imposition of an income-tax surtax, in order to get the deficit down.
Gregory Fossedal, a member of the editorial page staff of The Wall Street Journal -- a conservative organ -- has written in the pages of The New Republic -- a liberal journal -- an article titled "Corporate Welfare Out of Control." Estimating the annual cost of "the corporate welfare check" at $140 billion in government subsidies, inflated payments and tax breaks, he says:
"Reagan has effectively portrayed a social welfare budget riddled with 'waste, fraud and abuse.' Now it's time he turned to perhaps the largest, fastest growing, yet least discussed public relief program of the federal government: corporate welfare."
The Economist, a staunchly pro-Reagan British magazine, summarized the budget picture this way: "The President's fiscal cure might leave the economy frail, even if taken full-strength. Diluted, it is no cure at all. Reducing the deficit will have to be based on a wider range of spending cuts. And if Congress cannot deliver a better budget, it may have to be based on higher taxes, too."
A fourth straw, maybe the most interesting one of all, came in a speech that Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) made to a business group in Minneapolis last week. In it, he explained why he is skeptical of any of the proposed "across-the-board" budget-freeze proposals:
"It really isn't across-the-board at all," he said. "It only freezes those people who get their government subsidy through spending. It doesn't get to the Americans whose subsidies are hidden in the tax code.
"For instance, is it fair to freeze spending on food stamps while we continue the deduction for corporate lunches unchecked? Is it fair to freeze mass-transit subsidies while the number of corporations claiming accelerated depreciation for corporate jets and luxury autos continues to climb?"
Durenberger, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, pointed out that "the dollars involved in these tax expenditures are not small. The Joint Committee on Taxation counts 106 items in the tax code. . . . In 1984, those tax expenditures cost us $321 billion. . . . In fiscal 1985, they will cost $365 billion, an increase of $44 billion in one year. That's more than the increase the president is proposing for defense. Tax expenditures will go up to $404 billion in 1986, another $39 billion increase. Up $83 billion in two years. That's more than the cost of Medicare.
"If our problem is the deficit," he concluded, "I don't think it is fair to slap a freeze on one side while allowing the subsidies to grow nchecked on the other. If I could think of a way to do it, I would propose an across-the-board freeze on tax expenditures. Keep them at $321 billion until we got true tax reform."
Now, it is easy to dismiss all this. The "corporate welfare" that Fossedal is talking about includes politically protected items, such as oil exploration incentives and the export finance subsidies that help finance some of our biggest overseas sales.
Durenberger's tax expenditures include the home mortgage interest deduction and the deduction for state and local tax payments, which certainly have economic and governmental values.
But what these men -- and others -- are saying is that all claims have to be weighed when the budget is examined, not just the small sector of domestic discretionary spending where Reagan targeted all his cuts.
The longer the country has to look at the budget options and the better it understands what is really at stake, the more likely it is that the equities are going to be better balanced by Congress than they were in the proposal the president submitted.
There is no way to avoid the pain of starting to pay our bills. But it can be done much more fairly than Reagan did it -- and the odds are improving that it will be.