Last Wednesday was a double-whammy day for those who swallowed the magic elixir of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings last year and believed it would bring "automatic" reductions in the budget deficit.
In the morning, plainly skeptical Supreme Court justices fired tough questions at the lawyers trying to uphold the law's "trigger mechanism." After the arguments, most observers were betting that the high court will find unconstitutional (as a lower court already did) the distinctive Gramm-Rudman device of having the comptroller general order across-the-board spending cuts if Congress fails to meet the law's deficit target.
Later in the day, a series of Senate votes on the budget resolution clearly signaled that the Republican majority's ideas of how to reach that $144 billion taget are very different from President Reagan's. The senators rejected his proposals to kill outright a number of domestic programs and voted instead to expand education aid, even at the cost of higher taxes.
Taken together, the day's events sent a message that Gramm-Rudman gimmickry will not produce the promised deficit reductions. If the flow of red ink is to be trimmed, it will have to be done the old-fashioned way: by politicians making the hard decisions they are elected and paid to make.
That does not come as a surprise to those of us who have argued from the first that Gramm-Rudman was a charade. Even if its "automatic trigger" were constitutional, it was ludicrous to think that a set of unelected officials -- the green-eyeshade operatives in the Office of Management and Budget, the Congressional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office -- could force deep defense cuts on a protesting president or compel an election-year Congress to swallow severe domestic- program reductions.
Because the principal sponsors, Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, are Republicans, Gramm-Rudman has been characterized as a conservative initiative. It is not. It is more accurately classified as a latter-day eruption of the progressive-era reform spirit that marked the first two dec century.
The special conceit of progressivism, exemplified in its attack on patronage and partisan elections, was the belief that the way to purify government was to rid it of politics. Gramm-Rudman seeks to take budget-making -- a supremely political process -- out of the hands of the politicians in the White House and on Capitol Hill and give it to the technicians. It was bound to fail.
But that is no reason to despair. The Gramm-Rudman targets are perfectly attainable in today's economy, if politicians meet their responsibilities. Once again, the Senate Republicans are setting a better example than the recalcitrant president and the equally stubborn House Democratic leadership.
They are pushing a balanced mix of defense and domestic cuts and a modest tax hike. It would bring the deficit down without damaging the economy or any vital national interest. This approach has worked in the past, and it can work again. In fact, it is exactly such yeoman work by the Senate Republicans that has kept the budget deficit from being far worse than it is.
That view, which has been expressed here before, is powerfully supported in an article for the forthcoming issue of The Washington Monthly by John L. Palmer, a budget expert at the Urban Institute, and Stephanie G. Gould, a writer formerly associated with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. They demonstrate that "over the past four budget cycles Congress has managed to achieve substantial savings -- enough to reduce the fiscal 1986 deficit by over $160 billion from what it otherwise would have been and to reduce projected future deficits by far more."
"Put another way," they say, "were it not for the congressionally imposed slowdown in the planned defense buildup, the congressionally initiated tax increases and the additional (post-1981) domestic program cuts, we would be in a hell of a mess."
When it comes to handing out praise and blame, they are equally blunt -- and, in my judgment, on the mark. Speaking of Reagan, they say: "For all the president's grave talk about a spendthrift Congress, his actual budget proposals since 1981 attest to the low priority of deficit reduction in his administration. He has remained intransigent on the subjects of defense spending and taxes and has wished away the bulk of the deficit with overly optimistic economic assumptions and politically unrealistic cuts in domestic programs."
"Nevertheless," they say, "Congress -- most notably, the Senate Republican leadership -- has taken on this thankless task, consistently rejecting the president's budgetary euphorics, insisting on meaningful action against deficits and forcing substantial compromise to this end on the president."
I would add only that in election years 1982 and 1984 and again this year, the House Democrats have been as recalcitrant as Reagan in meeting their budgetary responsibilities. Those reluctant dragons, Reagan and Tip O'Neill, will have to be smoked out of their caves if this year's effort is to be successful. Gramm-Rudman won't do it. Public pressure might.