MAKING THE OBVIOUS explicit, a Treasury official observed the other day that no significant tax increase is at all likely before the election. The official, Assistant Secretary John Chapoton, is the person in charge of tax legislation, and he knows his subject. Since everyone has assumed for some months that the administration would do nothing about taxes for the remainder of this Congress, Mr. Chapoton's comments are hardly a revelation. But they offer an occasion to reflect on the unattractive position in which the country now finds itself.
The administration that was going to balance the budget in 1984 will, instead, go coasting through the campaign with a deficit over $200 billion. How will it answer the inevitable questions? First by blaming the shortfall on the recession--and suggesting the recession was an act of God, like a hailstorm. Then, if pressed, by blaming Congress for failing to cut spending.
In fact, Congress has cut quite a lot--and in some of the social programs, too much. As the Congressional Budget Office calculates it, the cuts since the beginning of the Reagan administration amount to about $47 billion this year. That is not a small figure. Of that, incidentally, about $21 billion was taken out of the supposedly untouchable entitlement programs. That $47 billion approaches one- tenth of all federal spending this year outside defense and interest on the debt.
An unwary listener might suppose that Mr. Reagan had a vast plan for budget cuts and had been balked by an adamant Congress. The reality is a bit different. When Mr. Reagan came into office, there was a widespread view in both parties that spending had to be brought under better control. The cuts over the last two years all passed the House with the votes of Democrats. But now the budget has been pretty vigorously raked over, and there's not much support in either party for further large reductions. The White House itself is running out of ideas for cuts. That was evident from the limited suggestions in the president's budget last February.
Both the White House and Congress concede, in principle, the need for more revenue. The White House is still committed to its dubious scheme for a contingent tax, although it has no serious intention of pursuing it. Congress voted, in its budget resolution, for a hypothetical tax increase that no one expects to be enacted. Neither the Republican leadership of the Senate nor the Democratic leadership of the House considers itself capable of passing tax legislation over the active opposition of Mr. Reagan, and active opposition is what Mr. Reagan has promised. That's why the extended forecast is for continued high deficits, high interest rates, and rising strain on the monetary system--not only this country's but the world's.