Poor Larry Speakes. On Tuesday in California, he was sent out after a staff meeting to shake the presidential fist at Congress on the issue of "excessive spending." Congress before going home adopted a budget resolution; on its return it will start passing appropriations and some authorization bills to carry the resolution out. The president is being urged by some aides to refurbish his reputation on spending matters by vetoing some of these. Mr. Speakes announced that in deciding whether to do so, the president will use the Senate version of the budget resolution as his yardstick. That Senate version, Mr. Speakes said, "is the only agreement that will be able to produce true deficit reduction."
How quickly they forget. In terms of deficit reduction, the House and Senate budget resolutions each were strong in some respects, weak in others. The House was most trenchant on defense; it would have held next year's spending at this year's level, without any increase for inflation. The Senate was the stronger on Social Security and other major benefits programs. These are where it would have denied an inflation increase. Defense and the major benefits programs plus interest on the debt make up more than two-thirds of the budget. The remaining third is the fought-over territory where Congress made most of the cuts in the president's first term. Its major components include the federal programs for the poor, which both houses had agreed to fence off from further cuts this year, and the farm programs, which both houses are having such trouble cutting because of the stress in the Farm Belt. In this residual third of the budget the Senate did make a few more cuts than the House. Several of these were important in policy terms, but in fiscal terms they were marginal.
The president at one point endorsed the Senate version; his endorsement helped provide the political cover needed to pass it. But when the two houses went to conference and the Democrats began doing their accustomed dance on the Social Security issue, he reversed himself, abandoning the Republican senators he had encouraged -- and the essential element of the very Senate budget resolution that Mr. Speakes is now advancing as the meas
Everyone involved agrees that the budget resolution Congress adopted was weak. Leaders of the two houses acknowledged the next day that the likely deficit reduction would be less than the numerology of the process suggested. Partly because of the weakness of the economy (economic weakness means lower tax receipts), both the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget now see the deficit as stuck near $200 billion absent further action. The president talks of a line-item veto, and Mr. Speakes is sent out to talk of a veto strategy and possible rescissions of past appropriations this fall. But these devices the president is embracing -- and using as political deflectors -- will not appreciably reduce the deficit. The devices that would appreciably reduce it -- further restraint in defense, deferral of major benefits increases, a tax increase -- the president will not embrace.
That is all clear, and the White House staff should let us rest. This is vacation month, and everyone's earned it. September will be bad enough.