A strange thing happened in the House of Representatives on April Fools' Day. Republicans repudiated their own budget. But in the fog of war, the news was lost entirely.

The incident reveals much about what's wrong with passing radical measures with so little debate. House Republican leaders figured that the parliamentary maneuvers were so complicated and the focus on Iraq so intense that the episode would get practically no media coverage. They were right. That's why it's important to examine what happened.

On a nearly party-line vote, the House passed a budget that includes $1.4 trillion in tax cuts, $726 billion of which are protected under Congress's "reconciliation" process. To make a long story short, the protected tax cuts will in principle be easier to pass because Democrats will not be able to filibuster them in the Senate.

The GOP budget also includes $265 billion in cuts for veterans' programs, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, student loans and a slew of other matters.

The Senate, on the other hand, reduced that $726 billion tax cut to $350 billion, and it did not include the House's deep budget cuts.

The Senate and House now need to work out their differences. On Tuesday Rep. John Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat and his party's leader on budget issues, introduced a motion to "instruct" House conferees to restore $212 billion of the proposed budget cuts and reduce the tax cut by that amount. His motion further instructed the House to give way to the Senate's smaller tax cut figure. As the Democrats read it, their motion would reduce the tax cut by about $600 billion.

Rep. Jim Nussle, the Iowa Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, would have none of it. He gave a lengthy speech denouncing Spratt and the Democrats for being unwilling to confront "waste and abuse in this government."

Then the peculiar thing happened. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay walked onto the floor and decided that the Democratic proposal didn't say what its authors said it said. The Texas Republican ignored the second half of Spratt's instruction and insisted that it called for reducing the $726 billion House tax cut by only $212 billion. "The Democrats are suggesting that we have a $514 billion tax relief package," DeLay said, "and I think we could do a lot with that."

Over and over, Spratt insisted that DeLay was flat wrong about what the motion meant. But Republicans embraced DeLay's magic words and were free to vote for a proposal that repudiated their budget. Spratt's instruction passed 399 to 22.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

-- Lewis Carroll,

"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

Why did the shrewd DeLay rely on Humpty Dumpty's logic? Because Spratt was on the verge of winning, DeLay had to pretend that a defeat was a victory. "They no longer had the votes to defeat our motion," said Thomas Kahn, the Democrats' staff director on the Budget Committee, "because the cuts we were striking were so unpopular."

Republicans are especially sensitive to complaints from veterans' groups during wartime. Last month the top commanders of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans wrote House leaders to complain that "cutting already underfunded veterans' programs to offset the costs of tax cuts is indefensible and callous."

Parliamentary procedure may well allow Republicans to ignore this vote. But even DeLay couldn't dispute the fact that the House went on the record as abandoning almost all of the budget cuts that Nussle, with some honesty, had pushed through. Faced with a clear tradeoff between programs and tax cuts, Republicans voted for the programs. Which leads to the question: Do they really mean what they say they mean?

These tax proposals represent not a short-term stimulus to the economy but a radical change over time in the ability of government to finance basic services. If the advocates of big tax cuts are unwilling to be candid about how they would cut government, they should not be pushing through a radical program on the basis of two- or three-vote margins in the House and Senate. It was Jefferson who argued that you should not undertake great departures on slender majorities.

Moderate Republicans and Democrats in the Senate can stop this. They can hold the line on behalf of their still excessive but more modest tax cut. They have to decide whether to stand with Jefferson -- or Humpty Dumpty.