THE ADMINISTRATION and Congress have been conducting supposedly serious budget negotiations for nearly three months now, and on the surface they have little to show for it. They agree only that there is not going to be an agreement, as earlier hoped, before Congress goes off on its August recess.
When Congress returns there will be only four weeks remaining until the new fiscal year begins and the dreaded event of sequestration is scheduled to occur. Adjournment is then scheduled for mid-October. That leaves a grand total of six weeks to do more deficit reduction than members have done in six years, yet the two parties, which have deep internal divisions to overcome as well as the issues lying between them, are not yet even exchanging hard proposals.
It does indeed seem ludicrous that a month-long vacation should get in the way of solving the nation's central economic and political problem. But it's in the nature of Congress that it does the hard things, if at all, only on deadline, and sage members argue that there is no point in reaching agreement on the outline of a deal, then leaving town for a month and giving the interest groups time to destroy it.
Fifty billion dollars of deficit reduction, the apparent goal for next fiscal year, was never going to be easy. There is no way to achieve it without moving into sections of the budget that for too long have been dealt with in slogans (tax-and-spend, weak on defense, want to cut Social Security) rather than on the merits. In the business of serious governance, Congress and the executive branch are literally out of practice.
What's different this time, however, is that the president as well as the leadership of both parties on the Hill want the process to succeed and cannot afford to let it fail. The Democrats scorn the administration's latest reported proposal as little more than a warmed-over version of its unworkable January budget. The Republicans tartly reply that the Democrats have not offered even that much. But the president's new proposal contains specific tax increases that may not endure but are signals of the kinds of increases (excise plus caps on income tax deductions) he would be most willing to support. Democrats meanwhile can be heard faintly acknowledging the need to cut entitlements. Both sides seem headed toward more realistic positions on defense.
The best sign of all that an agreement may be near is how active the interest groups have become. The beer people say it would be un-American to tax Joe Sixpack. The American Petroleum Institute warns the economy cannot stand a broad new energy tax or increase in the tax on gasoline. State and local governments say they've already borne the burden of Reaganism, and it would be a sin against federalism to cap the state and local tax deduction.
But the president and congressional Democrats now both have committed their prestige to bringing the deficit down. If they fail it will be worse than if they had never seriously tried, and they know it. It won't be smooth -- the parties do, after all, disagree on which programs and groups should bear the burden -- but we persist in thinking they're going to make it.