"IN ORDER to get any kind of agreement," Rep. Connie Mack said of the budget the other day, "everybody has to be in some jeopardy." Sad to say, that seems to be true. The game then becomes to create a situation in which everyone is in roughly the same amount of jeopardy, so that all will flinch and march off to the bargaining table more or less simultaneously. That's what Congress is doing now: trying to create a balance of jeopardy.
The vehicle is the latest debt ceiling bill. Technically the Treasury runs out of borrowing authority today. It has enough cash around to last until the end of the month. Then the whole world collapses unless -- as of course it will -- Congress lifts the ceiling.
The Senate is preparing to stuff this must-pass legislation with a new set of teeth for Gramm-Rudman. Deficit targets would be met or spending cut automatically. The first such automatic device that Congress created was struck down by the Supreme Court as a violation of the separation of powers. This would be revised so as not to offend, at least not in the same way. The cuts would occur in defense as well as domestic programs. The theory is that the threat to defense would force the president to agree to the tax increase without which almost no one in Congress thinks the deficit can be brought down.
In the House there are some Democrats who doubt the president can be muscled to the table quite this crudely. They would give him the power to call off the automatic spending cuts, thinking it may be enough simply to shift the burden of the deficit back on his shoulders. House Republicans have also suggested an alternative to the current Senate plan. They would shift the process a little, so that the choice would be less clearly tax increase versus defense cuts, increasing the vulnerability of domestic spending programs. The important thing may be that, in both houses now, the Republicans seem to be trying to rejoin the budget process from which they stood aloof earlier in the year. It's in everybody's interest that this happen. The Democrats can't pass the next round of legislation without Republican help, and the chaos that will otherwise ensue can't be to the advantage of either party.
Everything awaits the balance of terror. The tax bill is one good example. The House Ways and Means Committee is to begin work next week on the increase called for in the budget resolution. Is this process all for show? Or should the Democrats act as if it were for real? If the former, some would merely try to score political points and write a soak-the-rich bill. If the latter, they would reach out for Republican votes and draft a compromise.
A second example: The Republicans, as one amendment to the budget process, want to break up the omnibus appropriations bills with which Congress has funded the government in most recent years. One Republican proposal would break them into traditional appropriations bills, so the president could veto one without affecting all. That's a better way of governing -- the megabills are terrible -- but the Democrats are hardly likely to give the president this extra power without some hint of budget compromise in return.
The economy cannot continue in good health with the deficit at current levels. Neither can the government. The president and Congress must work out a compromise. Jeopardy is indeed the name of the game they are playing