The fact that the nation's economy is soft at the moment -- and is likely to get even softer because of the surge in oil prices -- is no excuse for Congress and the president to back off from the task of cutting the federal budget deficit. To be sure, the tax increases and federal spending cuts needed for deficit reduction will put a damper on spending by consumers and government. But interest rates will then fall, and the Federal Reserve can push them even lower, thereby taking up the slack with other kinds of spending -- on home building, business investment and exports.
The Federal Reserve does face a most difficult task in trying to minimize the economic damage from the sharp rise in oil prices, which simultaneously worsens both unemployment and inflation. But it faces no such difficulty in neutralizing the transition problems that come from deficit reduction. Ideally, perhaps, the budget negotiators could design a legislative package that cuts the deficit a little less this year and a little more in later years. But the urgency of enacting a deficit elimination package that covers a number of years remains as great as ever.
The country's political leaders -- President Bush, Speaker Tom Foley, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and Minority Leader Bob Dole -- agree that the federal budget deficit is sapping America's long-term economic strength and that it ought to be eliminated during the next three or four years. They also agree, deep down, that the deficit problem will not be solved without a combination of tax increases, cuts in middle class entitlement programs including Social Security, reduction in defense spending and some cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Despite this underlying agreement among the leaders, negotiations have stalled. Democrats will not put forward a plan that includes a tax increase because, with good cause, they know that apparatchiks and ideologues of the Republican Party will tar them with that position in the coming elections. And Republicans, with equally good reason, are afraid that if they propose the slightest cut in Social Security benefits, some rabble-rousing Democrats will try to repeat their electoral success of 1982 by accusing them of taking away the birthright of the nation's senior citizens.
Each side's more disreputable partisans are blackmailing the other side. And both sides are locked into frozen positions, even though the leaders in both parties know that the end result for the U.S. economy is creeping senility. (The United States, because of its budget deficit, now saves and invests far less than it did in the past and much less than other major industrial countries.) What's needed is a means of neutralizing the blackmailers. The president and the congressional leaders can do that while still preserving their parties' basic differences by issuing a brief statement of bipartisan agreement that would say something like this:
"We, the president, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, the speaker and the minority leader of the House of Representatives believe that eliminating the federal budget deficit over the next three to four years is essential to the prosperity and long-term future of America.
1. "We all agree that a tax increase is necessary to balance the budget. We have different ideas about exactly how much and what kind of taxes should be raised. We will vigorously debate and then settle these differences through votes in Congress. But none of us, in either party, supports -- indeed we condemn -- attacks on candidates for Congress from the other party simply on grounds that the candidate proposed or voted for a tax increase.
2. "We all agree that some cuts in entitlement programs, including reductions in Social Security benefits (or increases in taxes on those benefits) must also be a part of anyLeaders of both parties basically agree, but each side's more disreputable partisans are blackmailing the other side. serious deficit-reduction program. We differ about exactly how to make the cuts, and we will debate and settle those differences in the normal way. But again, we condemn attacks against members of the other party merely on grounds that the member proposed or voted for Social Security or other entitlement cuts."
To avoid the possibility that political hatchet men will try to evade the intent of this statement, it should be issued by the principals themselves. In particular the president, not Messrs. Darman and Brady, should sign the pledge.
There are other necessary elements of deficit reduction -- cuts in defense spending and in civilian programs outside of entitlements. But it is the politics of tax increases and cuts in Social Security benefits that are the nasty material for the political blackmail that has frightened both sides into stalemate. Getting rid of the fear of blackmail and the underlying agreement among the nation's leaders on what has to be done will begin to produce results. With the deficit impasse broken, the country's leaders can begin governing again. The writer, director of the Economic Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Carter.