THE HOUSE last week threw the biggest bash of the year -- a feast for cynics. Less than two weeks after the stock market crashed in part because of the persistent federal deficit, it first rejected, then lamely passed by the decisive, not to say resounding, margin of 206 to 205 a reconciliation bill to reduce the deficit in the expanses of government not subject to the annual appropriations process.
The sorry spectacle had something for everybody. The Democrats demonstrated once again that they can't keep off the sauce; a significant part of the spending restraint in the bill is phony. The Republicans meanwhile continued to confuse sanctimony with a program, preaching fiscal responsibility and fleeing from the means of achieving it with equal speed.
Most of the reconciliation bill is constructive legislation for which the sponsoring Democrats deserve more credit than they are likely to get. The heart of it is a $12 billion tax increase adopted before the crash and over Republican opposition and presidential threats of reprisal first with a veto pen, then at the polls. Everyone knows there needs to be a tax increase; the Democrats alone have had the guts to vote one. The bill also contains some helpful and genuine spending cuts, particularly in Medicare.
But the worthy features of the bill are tainted by the fakes. The Agriculture Committee was supposed to save about a billion dollars. It did so not by cutting the programs that are the problem but by deferring expenditures and concocting fairy tales according to which the expenditures might not occur. Surely not our constituents, said the farm-state members of both parties. The Merchant Marine Committee was, if anything, worse. It had to save only about $100 million; the thought had been that it might finally do so partly by imposing fees on the clamorous pleasure boaters who use Coast Guard services. The committee cynically voted instead to impose fees on the Kuwaitis for the convoying of their oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
Who wants to argue that a bill with provisions like these deserves to be taken seriously as an expression of congressional fiscal discipline? The leadership also erred in trying -- unsuccessfully -- to pass the Democratic welfare reform bill under cover of reconciliation. The bill is a good one, but it involves major policy changes and cost increases that Republicans oppose and that deserve to be debated on their own.
The problem has been the same for seven years. Everyone wants the deficit cut -- but at the expense of someone else's priorities. That has easily been at least as true of the president as of the Agriculture Committee. From neither the president nor the Democrats has there been a convincing call for common sacrifice. They are all at the bargaining table now, but what brought them there was less leadership than fear. The little beads of sweat everywhere -- "we have to, or the markets won't believe us" -- are the most demeaning aspect of the whole affair.