Ronald Reagan, master of presidential symbolism, shut down the federal government yesterday to demonstrate his determination to cut government spending. It was a grand gesture and probably good politics, too, but it did nothing to solve the president's ever-deepening budget dilemma.
By exercising his veto and sending the bureaucrats home for a day, the president got Congress to blink. This is good political theater, and it ought to play well in Peoria--and perhaps on Capitol Hill. Eventually that blink may save the Treasury a couple of billion dollars.
But if Reagan has succeeded in refurbishing his image as a crusading budget-cutter, he has failed to reduce significantly the fiscal 1982 federal budget deficit, which is now News Analysis News Analysis likely to reach $80 billion or even $100 billion.
Two months ago Reagan announced a new round of budget-cut proposals intended to hold the '82 deficit, he said then, to $43.1 billion. So despite the powerful symbolism of yesterday's presidential veto of a continuing resolution on government spending, the fact remains that this projected deficit has about doubled in just 60 days.
After an extraordinary run of success in Congress--winning both spending and tax cuts last summer--the White House has suffered a steady succession of undramatic but potentially devastating setbacks in its crusade to shrink the federal government.
As a result, President Reagan will now be forced either to withdraw completely from his original positions or to propose a 1983 budget next January that calls for cuts in federal spending that will be much larger and vastly more painful than any he has recommended thus far.
A combination of factors has created this situation. Most important is a deep national recession that will cut federal revenues and increase government spending much more than any Reagan administration forecast had predicted. Second is the powerful impact on the budget deficit of Reagan-inspired tax cuts that take effect next year. Third is the failure of the president's September proposals for new taxes and spending cuts intended to cut the 1982 deficit by $16 billion.
Yesterday's veto was the last gasp from the White House in its now-failed effort to save that additional $16 billion. Though the numbers are still a subject of dispute, the fight over the continuing resolution concerned no more than $2.5 billion. The White House had already retreated from a savings goal of $16 billion to about $4 billion. The continuing resolution passed Sunday night by Congress would have saved about $1.5 billion.
Given that big retreat already, the White House saw a clear political benefit in making at least a dramatic show of this final act. Senior officials acknowledged privately yesterday that the president needed a vehicle to reaffirm his enthusiasm for budget-cutting, even if he has had to abandon many of his recent objectives.
One White House official said that if Congress had been allowed to win the fight over the continuing resolution--and thus rub the president's nose in his failure to get the $16 billion in new savings he declared was necessary in September--Reagan would have had little hope of getting more big cuts next year. "Let's face it," this source said, "they don't want to cut spending up there on Capitol Hill , do they?"
Seen in this light, the president's veto was more than showmanship. From the beginning the Reagan budget-cutting crusade has been a fundamental test of the relative political strength of Congress and the president, so Reagan had good reason to want to avoid the appearance of a clear congressional victory at this stage.
The White House would like to portray it as a test between the Democratic House and the Reagan program, but the facts undermine that interpretation. In fact the Republican-controlled Senate did more to frustrate the president since he announced his "September offensive" than did the House.
The president asked in September that all the pending appropriations bills be amended to reduce most government spending by 12 percent. The Senate Appropriations Committee not only ignored this request, but Chairman Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) announced publicly that he could only find $1 billion of additional savings in all the non-defense spending bills. He also said he could take $4 billion out of defense spending, a cut the White House did not want.
The Republican leaders in the Senate then initiated prolonged negotiations with the White House over a possible compromise in the president's September proposals. After toying with suggestions--which would have increased taxes more than Reagan wanted, cut defense spending more than he wanted and reduced domestic spending less than he had asked--the White House decided to abandon those negotiations.
In the interim, Hatfield just waited. "He's played a masterful waiting game," said a Republican Senate source who disagrees with Hatfield's objectives but admires his tactics. "He delayed, delayed, delayed, and he's winning," this source said, noting that even a continuing resolution now acceptable to Reagan would be closer to Hatfield's original agenda than to the president's.
Some weeks ago White House officials talked boldly of using the continuing resolution--a legislative vehicle to allow the government to keep spending money in the absence of formally approved appropriations bills--as a club to enforce strict budget discipline. Some suggested using the resolution the way the administration used the budgetary reconciliation process last summer to impose its will on Congress without having to win individual votes on the separate appropriations bills. Theoretically, at least, it would be possible to get one up-or-down vote on the latest version of the president's program by incorporating it in a continuing resolution.
But this bold talk was never converted into a concrete plan of action. Instead the White House decided not to increase any taxes, not to accept any significant new cuts in defense spending, and not to make an all-out fight for the 12 percent non-defense spending cuts Reagan asked for in September.