SENS. LAWTON CHILES and Pete Domenici, chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, are supposed to meet today to discuss a "fix" of the budget process. The interesting thing about the likely topics of discussion is how far removed they are from the world in which the rest of us mortals live, and which we are pleased to call real.
The goal is to create a terrifying trap that will force everyone, but most of all, of course, the president, to flee to the bargaining table. You do this by reconstructing the Gramm-Rudman guillotine -- setting deficit targets and providing for automatic cuts in both domestic programs and defense if Congress and the president can't meet them. In theory, at least, the president will then be forced to choose between the tax increase he doesn't want and the defense budget he does.
That's all understandable enough, but then you go to the fine print, or rather, that's what Sens. Chiles and Domenici must do. What should the deficit targets be? Should they be fixed or floating? The Republicans are calling for fixed targets, perhaps $150 billion next fiscal year, $130 billion the year after that and no fancy stuff. You have to keep the complicated process as simple as you can, they say, the objective clear. But the Democrats would rather have the basic objective be to cut the deficit by $36 billion a year from what it otherwise would be. They rightly say that this will keep the mechanism from slicing off too much if the economy is weak and not enough if it is strong. But who is to decide what the deficit would otherwise be? The Democrats don't want to give that unhedged power to the Office of Management and Budget, for fear of manipulation. They don't even want to give the White House that much power if the targets are fixed. Hence all kinds of arguments about what are called baselines, how to determine the starting points each year. The senators are carefully dividing up the power to make underlying economic assumptions that almost everyone understands will almost never come true. That's where we've come.
There may also be discussions of such things as the power of the appropriations committees to switch funds from defense to nondefense programs, and whether to divide the great appropriations bills in which most years now end into their traditional parts, so the president can pick and choose in signing them. The Republicans basically want to reduce discretion at the congressional end of the process, increase it at the White House end; the Democrats, controlling Congress and not the White House, lean the other way. But this isn't any longer governing in the traditional sense. Mostly because the president won't bargain, the senators have been reduced to building better, bigger mousetrap