WHILE CONGRESS was belatedly giving final approval to its 1984 budget resolution last week, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole complained that the Senate was leaving a "dead cat" at his committee's door. Most of the dirty work called for by the final resolution does fall within the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, which are called upon, among other things, to raise taxes by $73 billion over the next three years. Last year Sen. Dole spearheaded even larger reforms, and he has plenty of good ideas about what should happen now. But his enthusiasm for a repeat performance is understandably restrained.
The big difference this year lies in the economic climate. Last year at this time it was apparent to all that instead of the forecast recovery, another recession was under way. This year, while the economy is still functioning well below capacity, the indicators are pointing upward, and the pressure to make hard choices is off. Congress is busily marking up appropriations that violate budget guidelines set for both this year and next and repealing the tax withholding reforms voted last year. Even conservative senators are writing legislation for multibillion dollar health and housing programs, and House liberals are dusting off tardy recession relief plans.
The president will, no doubt, veto some of these spending plans, although he is apparently unwilling to take on such popular extravagances as occur in water projects. And sympathy for his resistance to out-of- line domestic spending has been eroded in both parties by the administration's stated determination to continue pressing for higher defense spending. Despite the big tax cut scheduled for July 1, the president has also vowed to veto any small increase in taxes voted for next year. Conservative Finance Committee members have advised Sen. Dole to ignore the tax targets set by the budget resolution for next year.
In this carnival atmosphere, why should the tax- writing committees take the chance of marking up a tax reform bill that will offend powerful people? Only because the budget situation is, in sober fact, even more perilous than it was last year. Numbers released by the Treasury Department last week show that in the first eight months of this fiscal year, the government has already run up a deficit of $162 billion. That's $50 billion more than the total deficit for 1982, itself record-setting. The country is already embarked on an experiment in deficit spending that strains the nerves of the most ardent Keynesians. Can more fiscal stimulus possibly be needed?
Revenue-raising can't bear the whole burden of putting the government on a prudent fiscal course. Congress has to get back to the serious business of restraining both defense and non-defense spending. But no one--including the administration--has a list of spending cuts that would bring the budget into balance. The only way to breathe new life into the dead budget cat is for the tax-writing committees to start work on a real tax reform bill.