There are some things worse than a budget impasse. One is the Republican budget alternative scheduled for a vote in the House today.
This new budget attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable--low deficits, tax cuts, high defense spending and a deferential regard for powerful constituencies--at the expense of basic aid to the poorest of the nation's citizens. It doesn't succeed--the deficit would still be enormous--but much harm would be done in the process.
The plan more than doubles the cuts in such aid that were proposed in the earlier House Republican plan, which failed two weeks ago. Roughly $4 billion --more than twice as much as the Senate voted-- would be taken next year from Medicaid, welfare for families, the aged and the disabled, food stamps and nutrition programs for poor children. Over three years, these programs would lose almost $18 billion. The plan would also phase out legal services, stop all low-income housing starts and make deep cuts in job training for the poor.
The hefty cuts made in these programs this year were supposed to confine the programs' benefits to the "truly needy." These people are now being called on to make larger sacrifices. Not so the better-defended beneficiaries of the middle-class entitlement programs that dominate the domestic budget. The budget shies away from any curtailment in inflation- adjusted benefits for Social Security, civil service and military pensioners and restores many of the proposed cuts in Medicare. Restorations are also promised in other popular programs, although it is hard to see how these can be reconciled with the more than $8 billion that the plan would take from non-entitlement domestic spending.
It would, of course, be an enormous relief for House members to adopt any budget resolution at all that promised significantly lower deficits than the administration's own plan. That would end the heat that they have been getting from the White House for causing high interest rates. But adopting the Republican plan--the likely winner if there is any winner at all--would be bad policy, and it would also be misleading.
Adopting a budget resolution is, after all, not the same thing as adopting a budget. All it does is set guidelines for future legislation and appropriations. If the resolution is premised on Congress' later doing things that it could not in good conscience do, then it is a phony document--designed to fool people into thinking that things have been settled which are not settled at all. If you doubt this, consider the discrepancy between the small budget deficit called for in last year's resolution and the actual fact a year later.
If Congress really wants to act responsibly--in a way that the administration has not--it will face up to the fact that there is only one way to finance a massive defense buildup. And that is by raising taxes.