The Senate tried all last week to pass a budget and failed, while reports issued from the White House that the president preferred no budget at all to one that raised taxes and cut defense more than he wants. "We don't need a budget. We don't need the congressional budget process." We hear these words more and more often from more and more people.
Have we given up on democracy and majority rule? Have we reached the point that, when we disagree with the will of the current majority, we are ready to scrap the system?
For two years--since the budget process first was used to accomplish the "Reagan Revolution"--liberals had been saying "Down with the system. Do away with anything that can be used to decimate 50 years of social reform and humanitarian legislation."
Now so-called conservatives are arguing: we don't need a budget this year. Their argument seems to be that the country is better off with no budget at all than with a budget they do not like. And since they do not have the votes to pass a budget to their liking, they are searching for a way to stifle majority rule.
For two years, I have argued that Democratic House members railing at the way the budget process was used to enact the president's economic agenda were complaining about the wrong thing. It wasn't the budget process that made possible the spending and tax cuts they abhor. It was the will of the majority represented by the votes of its elected representatives.
This year, it seems, someone must take the same message to the conservatives who dislike the slower growth in defense and the higher taxes that appear inevitable in any budget resolution capable of passage in either house of Congress.
I shudder to think of the deficits now facing the country. They are different from any we have faced in the past. They are built into law. (To a large extent they are caused by the changes in law enacted as part of the Reagan economic program. Taxes were cut as spending increased. The result is enormous deficits as far as the eye can see.)
But don't blame the process for the president's budget proposals, or for Congress' decisions on the budget. Blame our failure to come to grips with reality and to level with the American public on how very limited and how very difficult are the choices Congress must make to get this economy back on track.
I am not ready to give up on the system. As Richard Bolling, former chairman of the House Rules Committee, has said: the question of whether we can manage our fiscal affairs is the issue on which Western democracy will stand or fall. Not only our country, but all of our democratic allies are having trouble coming to grips with resource allocation acceptable to a majority of the electorate and, at the same time, consistent with sustained non-inflationary economic growth.
The congressional budget process may not be perfect, but it is the only tool our elected representatives have to decide how much we shall be taxed and how much we shall spend before moving on to the question of the allocation of resources among competing priorities within those agreed limits. And without a system by which we agree on limits, we shall surely spend ourselves into oblivion.
The only way to get deficits under control is for Congress to take a hard look at the rates of growth in defense and entitlement spending--and once it cuts spending as much as it can (or as the body politic will allow) to raise taxes to pay for the government it believes its constituents demand. There is not enough money anywhere else in the budget to make much difference in $200 billion-a-year deficits.
I don't hold out much hope Congress will cut the deficit as much as I think it ought to this year. I'm not going to like the outcome of this year's budget cycle. Does that mean the budget process has failed? No! It means that I--and those who agree with me-- had better get busy and explain our point of view to more people. We better persuade voters that deficit reduction is imperative, or Congress will never agree on what I believe is responsible budget policy.