I was scanning this newspaper the other day -- not reading any one particular column but taking in the whole effect -- when suddenly I felt transported back in time.
There on the left of the front page, House Democrats were preparing a big job-creation and housing aid initiative. Down below, the Senate was rallying around a multibillion-dollar public works program -- the stuff that fills the proverbial pork barrel. Over on the right the president was talking about stimulating the economy with good old Keynesian tax cuts while courting a bunch of mayors with soothing talk about more revenue-sharing. Back on the financial page, the stock market was booming. Happy days are here again!
What happened to all that chilling talk about shifting priorities and the need for budget discipline? Desperately high unemployment has surely taken some of the punch out of it. But perhaps there is something more subtle at work in the politicians' subconscious -- the feeling of losing control.
Almost every day, a new and more terrifying deficit projection emerges from one source or another. Last summer, Congress swallowed hard when it voted for a $103 billion deficit in 1983. Since then, that number has drifted upward -- $135 billion, $150 billion, $190 billion. And there is no relief in sight -- even the president's chief estimator is saying that the deficit may well hit $250 billion by 1987.
Numbers that big deaden the brain and sap the will. Why offend this powerful constituency or cut that useful service when all you will save is mere nickels and dimes in comparison with the remaining deficit? Why scrimp on a few million or even a few billion when you've still got to borrow hundreds of billions to make ends meet?
It wasn't supposed to work that way in the administration's scenario. When the administration first charted its tax-cut-first-budget-cut-later strategy, the few administration officials who understood what the budget was all about knew full well that -- economic revival or not -- huge deficits were in the offing. That's what all those "magic asterisks" in the administration's first budget book actually signified. But they gambled that the prospect of big deficits would force Congress to make politically unpalatable cuts in the domestic budget.
The strategy worked for awhile -- Congress did enact substantial budget cuts in 1981, but the going has been increasingly rough since then. The supply- side miracle failed to materialize, and rigid monetarism turned out to be just an efficient way to run a recession. As the economy worsened, revenues dropped, and recession-induced government spending rose. The president pushed for still more money for defense. And Congress woke up to the fact that the general public really likes most of the things in the domestic budget and that, once the three-year tax cut was passed, closing the deficit would require eliminating almost all of them.
All pretense of discipline hasn't vanished -- the president says he'll veto any big Democratic jobs bill, and now and then he still talks about the balanced budget constitutional amendment that he hopes to bequeath to his hapless successors. But leaked reports about preparations for the 1984 budget due in January suggest that the administration won't come up with much except another batch of small-dollar meannesses for the poor and some bureaucratic realignments and retrenchments that are unlikely to command much support in Congress. Putting Social Security back on its feet and restraining the runaway defense budget will apparently be left to Congress.
In the meantime -- heartened, no doubt, by the president's cheerful admission that he has no budget plan that will reduce what he now calls a "structural deficit" -- the House has been merrily disregarding his wishes with respect to the huge health, education and labor appropriation. Last Wednesday, it passed a bill that is nominally $5 billion over the president's original request, but is actually more than $10 billion higher because it leaves out money the administration wants for its job-training program and underestimates welfare and Medicaid costs.
Oh well, it's all supposed to be more stimulus for the economy and, heaven knows, the economy could use a shot in the arm. Economists think that the recovery has started, and perhaps all that federal borrowing won't scare Wall Street and the Federal Reserve into higher interest rates -- at least for a little while. So get out there, all you Christmas shoppers, and boost the sagging aggregate demand. Make hay while the sun shines.