In normal times this capital offers a multi-ringed circus, a surfeit of spectacle. But just not, in the first days of the Reagan administration, there is only one game in town for the legions of lobbyists, bureaucrats and politicians who comprise the permanent Washington: David A. Stockman's budget game.
Despite his youth, the boyish, 34-year-old budget director is, at least for the moment, the most important membeof the board of directors the new president has assembled to run the country.
He is important to President Reagan as architect of government policy and as a lightning rod to deflect the political outcry the policy will provoke.
In these first days of the new government, the new director of the Office of Management and Budget is working feverishly to produce a plan for a revolution in American government -- "a more far-reaching set of proposals for changing the federal government than anything since the New Deal," as one Democratic congressman put it this week.
Following a detailed personal blue-print that he has carried in his head for a half a dozen years, Stockman is plotting a great withdrawal from the forward positions of government-financed welfare, social reform and regulation of business to which Democratic Congresses and presidents of both parties advanced during the 1960s and '70s.
For now, at least, Reagan has embraced Stockman and his blueprint, perhaps because it gives Reagan something he never had during the campaign: a detailed plan to realize the conservative dreams that have animated the new president for his entire political career.
But Stockman's plan is harsher than anything Reagan offered as a campaigner last year. On some points -- subsidies for the maritime and dairy industries, for example, both of which Stockman wants to cut drastically -- the OMB director's intentions flatly contradict Reagan campaign promises.
Any revolution works to the disdvantage of the status quo, and the status quo constructed by the presidents and congresses of the last 20 years has many millions of beneficiaries, and thus likely defenders. As more of the new administration's plans become known, more of its potential victims will be heard from.
But just now Stockman is the only spectacle in the center ring. "He's flashing like a meteor across the sky," observed his former colleague from the House of Representatives, Barber B. Conable (R-N.Y.). "I hope he lasts longer than the average meteor," Conable added in an interview this week.
The Stockman game is complex and exhausting. It involves long hours of meetings with OMB professionals (a group Stockman has found to include highly capable public servants), new Cabinet members, White House staff, members of Congress and their aides.
There are mountains of paperwork, too: studies on various government programs, suggested spending cuts and analyses of their impact. Stockman gets up at 5 to start reading, and convenes his first meeting of the day at 7 a.m. He returns to his apartment in Northwest Washington 14 or 15 hours later, to do more reading, often marking up his staff's reports with instructions for rewriting or additional work.
Stockman is playing to many different, audiences at once, no easy task. But he got his job in the Reagan administration because of his skills on the public stages, and his admirers are confident that he can play his new role well.
The performances that attracted Reagan's favorable attention came during the campaign, when Stockman was called on to play the parts of John B. Anderson and then Jimmy Carter to help Reagan prepare for his televised debates with each of them.
Stockman was once an aide to Anderson in Congress, and reportedly even sounded like him in the practice sessions with Reagan. Then he did an excellent initation of Carter, according to knowledgeable sources.
With that introduction to the boss and then his own thorough knowledge of the federal budget, Stockman was well placed to wage a campaign for the OMB job, which he fervently wanted.
To wage that campagin Stockman relied in part on the mass media, with remarkable success. Long a favorite of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Stockman was assured of favorable and prominent mention in that column.
His promoters also managed to leak a memorandum written primarily by Stockman outlining a radical economic program for Reagan administration to both The Washington Post and The New York Times, spacing the leaks by seveal weeks so that first The Post and then The Times gave it prominent display.
That memorandum warned of "an economic Dunkirk" that the Reagan administration would face in its first months in office, then outlined a program of tax and spending cuts and regulatory reform to combat this crisis.
Many of the ideas in the memorandum came from Lewis Lehrman, a New York financier active in Republican politics. But the budget-cutting portions were vintage Stockman.
Stockman laid out his views on federal journal in 1975 in an article entitled "The Social Pork Barrel." Stockman argued that the great expansion of government spending programs on social welfare, education and the like had become the equivalent of "pork barrel" public works projects that members of Congress trumpeted to prove their worth to the folks back home.
The new maze of social programs amounted to "a horrendously costly, frequently inequitable and usually ineffective way of dealing with the nation's domestic ills," he wrote.
In that article Stockman listed many of the programs he deemed most undeserving. That list suggests the political boldness that he brings to his new jobs.
"Members [of Congress] openly admit to holding their noses when the annual $12 billion [now $23.2 billion] is appropriated for the veterans program -- most of which benefits exservicemen who do not even have a hangnail to show for their harrowing experiences in uniform . . ." Stockman wrote.
As director of the OMB, however, Stockman is unlikely to make snide remarks about politically powerful veterans, though he may still try to cut their benefits. He is now in a position of extreme political sensitivity, and, according to those who have been dealing with him in these frenetic first days, he is behaving accordingly.
For example, last Friday Stockman went up to the Capitol to meet privately with Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), the majority leader and a crucial figure in the fight to win congressional approval for the Reagan budget cuts.
Stockman's mission was to explain to Baker why he wanted to deprive the Tennessee Valley Authority of its access to the Federal Financing Bank as a source of below-market-interest-rate loans.
Baker's first reaction to this idea -- which could cost the popular TVA, so important in Tennessee, a lot of money -- was sharply negative, according to an aide. But Stockman kept working on the problem, is now preparing statistical information to justify his position, and Baker could still be won over.
Baker has organized a series of meetings between Stockman and the four Republican chairmen of the key economic committees in the Senate.
Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), chairman of Appropriations, said in an interview that he had "not been as impressed with anyone in a long time as I have with Stockman."
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Budget Committee, said he was all for the Stockman plan, including its politically controversial aspects, such as cuts in the Export-Import Bank's lending authority that would anger big business that use Ex-Im credits to finance their exports.
Key Senate aides speculate that Stockman is having an easier time in the Senate than he will in the House, partly because he is a new face in the Senate and an ex-colleague in the other body.
Hatfield acknowledged that "if he was a senator sitting here saying these things [about budget cuts], we'd be very critical." In the House, Stockman is familiar as a doctrinaire conservative and ardent tax-cutter who rarely showed much flexibility.
But Conable, the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Commitee and often a critic of Stockman, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and other true-believing conservatives in the House, said Stockman could now play a crucial part in unifying the tax-cutting and budget and budget-cutting wings of the GOP.
"All of a sudden," Conable said, "he is having to submerge a large part of a very important factor" in Stockman's policital career.
In his own mind, probably, Stockman is sticking by his conservative principles, but he has had to practive pragmatic politics too. His first challenge was to establish the preminence of the budget-cutting policy and head off new Cabinet members who might try to defend their agencies spending progams. With Reagan's help, including repeated expressions of presidential support as Cabinet meetings, Stockman has achieved the preeminence he needed.
One Stockman tactic has been to establish budget review committees comprised of the revelant Cabinet member and as many as half a dozen White House officials who are committed to what is known around the White House as "the central agenda" -- the budget cuts.
According to sources who have been in these meetings, the Cabinet member is inevitably put at an enormous disadvantage if he tries to defend spending the others want to eliminate.
The biggest political challenge is to sell the cuts to Congress and the country. Stockman hopes to do this by sharing the pain widely, so that both recipients of food stamps and the big corporations are seen to be suffering together.
He also plans to make modest short-term cuts (just $14 billion in this year's budget) and much bigger ones three and four years from now in a comprehensive plan whose ultimate benefits will be clear to all, he hopes.
Now the mood in Congress and the country seems favorable, but as Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), chairman of the Finance Committee, said this week, it can change quickly. Some of the proposed cuts are going to be shot down," Dole predicted.
Like Domenici, Dole said the Republicans need a more thorough political strategy than they have; asking Stockman to produce all the cuts and a strategy as well is too much for one man.
"If he gets through all this," Dole said of Stockman, "he may soon look 60. This could be one of the fastest aging jobs in town, maybe."