It's an old story in Washington that where you stand depends on where you sit. That's a practical acknowledgment of the fact that people's views change as they change responsibilities.
Still, it is extraordinary to find Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, of all people, inviting and urging members of Congress to subvert the congressional budget process.
This is the same Cap Weinberger who, in his earlier incarnation, was the director of the Office of Management and Budget for the Nixon administration. In those days, Weinberger understood the importance of enforceable spending ceilings.
On Oct. 10, 1972, when Richard Nixon was trying to impose an overall spending lid on a Congress which then had no budget process of its own, The Post published a letter from budget director Weinberger. He argued that "the proposed spending ceiling is absolutely essential to the nation's economic well-being."
"This Congress," he wrote, "has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that it has been incapable of exercising effective control over total spending . . . The Congress pays excessive attention to details and virtually no attention to overall totals or to the effect of individual separate acts of spending on the budget totals. This is the very antithesis of fiscal responsibility."
Some of what Weinberger said of that Democratic Congress--a few weeks before the 1972 election--had the ring of partisan rhetoric. But it was essentially an accurate picture of the way things were then.
Two years later, recognizing the accuracy of the indictment, Congress voted the congressional budget process into being. The enforcement tool of that process is the requirement that individual spending bills must remain below the ceilings set by the overall budget resolution. It was that discipline--the so-called reconciliation process--that the Reagan administration used to force important reductions in previous domestic spending plans only four months after it took office.
But now it is defense spending that Congress proposes to discipline, and both Weinberger and President Reagan have shifted ground. They are the ones who are telling Congress to forget about the overall ceiling and pump out the money the Pentagon wants.
In a letter last week to Chairman John G. Tower (R-Texas) of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Weinberger said that even "if the House-Senate budget conference agrees upon a 5 percent real growth defense funding level, as stated in your letter," Tower's committee should ignore the ceiling and "avoid making any reductions" in Reagan's 10 percent defense hike.
The secretary pins this act of White House-sanctioned defiance on the technicality that the first budget resolution--on which Congress has been laboring since February--is not final and binding. He ignores the reality that if a budget ceiling is breached at any point, all the barriers to runaway spending will come down.
Reagan has chosen to ignore the same point, constantly disparaging the congressional budget process as a "Rube Goldberg machine," and throwing roadblocks in the way of the Republican and Democratic lawmakers who are struggling to contain the deficits.
This is a strange concept of conservatism that Reagan and Weinberger are employing. It is a conservatism that denigrates the need for discipline. It is a conservatism that would squander a long-term asset--as the budget process surely is--in order to achieve a temporary advantage. It is a conservatism that rejects the need for political and fiscal balance and insists on having it all its own way.
That is not conservatism. That is dogmatism, even when it is wrapped in fine phrases about national security. And it is political opportunism, setting the stage for a veto strategy aimed at depicting Congress as a pack of wild spenders.
This is not a new game, as Weinberger knows. Back in 1972, when Weinberger was unsuccessfully urging a spending ceiling, Richard Nixon announced that "with or without the cooperation of Congress," he would do all that he could to limit expenditures. "If bills come to my desk calling for excessive spending, which threaten the federal budget, I will veto them."
That kind of talk helped Nixon win his landslide reelection in 1972, and similar rhetoric may help Reagan in 1984. But the Nixon victory soon turned to dust, as the country discovered that behind his facade of conservative talk, Nixon was determined to get his own way--and the laws be damned.
Cap Weinberger escaped unscathed from the ruins of the Nixon years, and he came back to Washington with a reputation for intellectual and political integrity. It is disquieting to see him put his talents on the block for another president who sets his own will above the law.