Bob Dole, illustrating the axiom that wit is educated insolence, said the Senate should pass the radical budget-balancing bill without hearings because, "The longer something hangs around here, it gets stale. People start reading it." Heaven forfend.
The proposal, an action-forcing device, would require five annual cuts of equal size ($36 billion) bringing the deficit to zero in 1991. The president would be required to submit a budget with sufficient spending cuts or tax increases to cut $36 billion from the deficit. If -- if! -- Congress did not ratify his blend of pains and did not devise its own blend, the failure would trigger a presidential duty to cut spending, across the board, by whatever fixed percentage is required.
Note that congressional failure to make hard choices would not invest the president with broad power to exercise rational discretion in shaping the budget. Defenders -- yes, defenders -- of the proposal stress that it makes the president a mere automaton. The proposal minimizes choice -- thought -- in budget-making. This evasion of governance might, for example, require the president to cut equally, thereby assigning the same social value to Amtrak subsidies and programs for spina-bifida babies.
This proposal is historic in its potential consequences and stunning in its symbolism, especially as it reveals a transformation of conservatism. In its potential for large consequences, it ranks a cut below repeal of the Missouri Compromise. It will not ignite civil war, quite. However, as an allocator of effective power within the central government, the proposal is as significant as the establishment of the Federal Reserve System.
Considering its source -- the conservative party -- the proposal is as startling as the Giles Enforcement Act of 1809, which suspended parts of the Bill of Rights in order to enforce compliance with Jefferson's embargo against Britain and France. Sen. William B. Giles, the author of this concentration of irresistible power in the central government, was a Virginia Jeffersonian, at least rhetorically.
Today's conservative proposal for shrinking deficits mocks some conservative rhetoric. It would involve an enlargement of executive- branch power without parallel in peacetime. Modern conservatism defined itself in opposition first to FDR and then to LBJ. Hence conservatism has celebrated congressional prerogatives against "presidential government." But conservatives supporting this deficit-cutting proposal favor a form of executive power far beyond the dreams of liberal political avarice.
We few who are "strong government conservatives" -- we Hamiltonians -- believe, as our hero did, that "energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government." But minimizing the element of mind in governance is a high price to pay for instilling energy in the executive.
The proposal illuminates the real, as distinct from the rhetorical, nature of contemporary conservatism. Social Security would be completely exempt from cuts. Social Security and interest payments, which are necessarily exempt, comprise one-third of the budget. All other entitlement programs would suffer only cuts from annual cost-of- living increases. Thus the controllable portion of the defense budget, especially pay, maintenance and operations, would bear a heavy burden of the cuts. So conservatives supporting the proposal are siding with the middle-class, social-insurance side of the central government against the defense priority.
The proposal is as American as, well, Prohibition. It expresses a deep desire to tame turbulent social forces with institutional cleverness and words on parchment. Deficits a problem? Outlaw the rascals -- that worked so well with gin.
It is axiomatic: In politics, the perfect is the enemy of the good. That is, pursuit of perfection impedes achievement of the merely adequate. Perhaps today's proposal is the closest that self-government, modern American-style, can come to self-restraint. But as Dole said to a supporter of the proposal, "Don't get up and explain it again. Some of us are for it."
Congressional pleas for the proposal sound like the notes the homicidal maniac sends to the police: "Stop me before I kill (spend) again!" Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), an author of the proposal, was an amateur boxer. He combines charming feistiness with disarming candor. He does not cavil about a description of the proposal as a straitjacket for the government to jump into in a fleeting moment of lucidity. But the words of Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), a critic of the proposal, can be quoted by proponents for the proposal. Bradley says Congress does not need new procedures, it just lacks political will. Just? "The brain surgeon just lacked steady hands."
The proposal calls to mind an acid cartoon from the late 1940s showing a German general saying, "I was only obeying orders I gave to myself." The proposal would hand a meat cleaver to the executive branch and force the use of it. Then a congressman or senator confronted by angry constituents could point to the executive branch and say: "Don't blame me. The, er, government did it."