Well, the House and Senate finally passed a fiscal 1986 budget last week, albeit not a very satisfactory one, so they could go off on vacation.
They're gone now, for a month, and the nation is probably better off. The man who wrote that "no man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session" knew whereof he spoke. But behind them, they left, as they usually do, a fiscal mess of substantial proportions, one that is never going to be cleaned up unless they quit playing games or until people rebel.
Neither is likely to happen. And only the rankest optimist -- for instance, Ronald Reagan's kid in the manure pile ("With all this stuff around there has to be a pony in here somewhere.") -- would seriously think differently. But surely, as they departed, the thinking members of Congress -- there are a few -- could not have been happy with what they wrought, because what they did clearly has no long-term significance.
That being the case, what now? Well, it's doubtful that the world will end, or even that the sky will fall. But there is no doubt at all that when the gang comes back from vacation and junket, there will be a lot of finger- pointing, second-guessing and blame-shifting by all parties. After all, as any pol can tell you, finger-pointing and that sort of thing are easier and more fun and often more politically advantageous than actually doing a job that needs to be done. And, face it, there can be no great political advantages to passing a bad budget -- or any bill -- that everyone but you can be blamed for.
The Democrats know this instinctively, so, as happens frequently, while they were on the wrong side regarding the public good, they were on the right side as far as getting reelected is concerned. One must admire them for putting first things first. No, by golly, they are never -- not this year or ever -- going to stand for any substantial cuts in social programs, or, in fact, anything except national defense. Cut back on Social Security increases? Not only "no" but "hell no."
They never forget what Republicans always seem to forget, that good government is not always good politics. And that old folks vote, as do the members of every other special interest group to whom Congress ladles out money.
To heck with the possiblity that they may some day bust the bank. That won't be until after the next elections at the earliest, which means that if they play their cards right, they can make gains in the House and regain control of the Senate -- and that's what's really important. They'll be helped, in 1986 at least, by those old reliable Republicans who, in the name of fiscal responsibility actually tried -- again -- to reduce Social Security benefits and raise the price of gasoline and poor folks' heating oil with a surtax on oil imports. You can be sure the Democrats will never let the voters forget.
The Republican blunder -- and it was one -- again makes the differences between the parties perfectly clear: Republicans would rather be right, and Democrats would rather be reelected. As far as the Republicans are concerned, it wasn't enough that they couldn't agree with the Democrats over a budget. That's normal. But they couldn't even get along with each other. That may be okay if you're the majority party, but it's not smart if you're the minority party, which the Republicans still are, although in the waning flush of Reagan's reelection, they may not remember.
Regardless, the rancorous attempts to reach agreement on a budget divided the Republicans more than anything since Reagan ran against Ford. There are now Congressional Republicans and White House Republicans, and they like each other less almost daily, despite Chief of Staff Donald Regan's peace pipe and the healing affects of the president's operation. The battle with the White House even united, at least temporarily, those two unfriendly rivals, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Rep. Jack Kemp.
It's wrong to say, however, that the Congressional Republicans and the White House have become permanently estranged. There's more at stake in the long run than the budget. But there's no doubt that disillusionment has set in. Part of the problem is a matter of substance and part a matter of attitude.
The substance included the president's double flip- flop on Social Security, a prize-winning performance even by Mary Lou Retton's standards, but one that left Senate Republicans out on a limb. It also involved Reagan's absolute refusal to consider any further tax inceases. But who can blame him? You don't have to have a long memory to remember the fiasco of 1982 when Reagan, listening to the importunings of his first chief of staff, James A. Baker, III, supported a mjor tax increase. He did so in the belief he had an agreement from both sides in Congress for a $2 spending cut for every dollar of new taxes. Needless to say, he was had. The tax increase passed, and the Congress went right on spending as usual. There wasn't 2 cents worth of spending cuts, much less $2.
Now, regardless of deficits, the president seems determined to force future spending cuts by blocking new tax increases either this year or in the immediate future. If nothing else, this finds him living up to his 1984 campaign promise not to raise taxes. But it puts him at odds with Dole, who wanted the oil surtax, and with Dole's predecessor, former senator Howard Baker, who weighed in last week with a call of his own for a tax increase. Both Dole and Baker want to be president. So did Walter Mondale, who also wanted to raise taxes.
The attitude problem involves Don Regan. His attack on Congress as a whole, not just on Democrats, angered most Republicans. Many in and out of government are saying he has taken the bit in his teeth and is running alone and unguided. Whether or not this is true, he has some serious fence-mending to do if he is to be effective in dealing with Congress in the post-budget period. Right now, he is running low on peace pipes.
Though the budget fight created problems for Republicans, problems they might have avoided, it doesn't necessarily mean that electoral disaster lies ahead. National election results today largely depend on the state of the economy. But the Republicans won't be helped if they continue to do dumb political things such as calling for tax increases or for reducing Social Security increases. In the abstract, they may be virtuous proposals, but virtue is its own reward in politics, too, and often gets in the way of winning.
Additionally, the public has a short memory, and it easily forgets today's mistakes as they're overtaken by tomorrow's televised disasters. The average man still votes his belly. If he's working, if his neighbor is wor ing, if he's paying his bills, if his job is secure, he seldom votes to throw the rascals out, regardless of party, and in spite of the way the rascals perform. Finally, politicians have been crying wolf about deficits and the national debt ever since the Democrats legitimized both back in the 1930s. Unless the sky finally does fall, most people just won't listen. And the size of the deficit and debt don't really matter. To the average wage earner, a million bucks isn't much more comprehensible than a billion.
In the meantime, however, the fights over spending and taxing will go on, motivated by politics and even, in some cases, by a desire to do the right thing. For the next three years, they will continue to involve a Teflon president (not a derogatory term, by the way; every president should be so lucky), and likely, an aggressive chief of staff who, in dealing with Congress, may be handicapped by his own aggressiveness. They will also involve a Democratic leadership, especially in the House, that underneath all the rhetoric doesn't really care about a balanced budget and never has, and a Senate Republican leader who will never win a prize for diplomacy.
Stir all these factors together and they add up to a typical continuing Washington soap opera. Now that the characters are taking their summer break, the whole town is watching and wondering: Will Republicans kiss and make up? Will the new romance between Bob and Jack last? Can Don survive? Is the Teflon beginning to wear thin?
But, this is Washington. Out in the country, as usual, folks don't seem to care much about either the infighting or the end results. They learned a long time ago that the people they elect to run government act in strange ways and are never much good at cleaning up the mess they create.