When House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) was asked this week to list his objections to legislation that would force a balanced budget, the charge that it would "subvert the Constitution" and hand the president a chunk of the power of Congress ranked only second in importance.
O'Neill's first objection was to "the track record" of the measure's principal sponsor, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.).
"Sen. Gramm," the speaker said, "in my opinion is responsible for the mess the nation is in more than any individual except Mr. Reagan. If the nation continued to follow Mr. Gramm, Lord only knows where we'll end up."
O'Neill didn't intend it, but his statement was a compliment of sorts: putting the junior senator from Texas in the same league as the president. For the second time in a relatively brief political career, Phil Gramm -- mild-mannered economics professor from that favorite butt of college jokes, Texas A&M -- appeared to have many of his congressional colleagues on the run. And they were running on an issue and at a time of his choosing.
Whatever its utlimate fate, the mandatory deficit-reduction plan adopted by the Senate yesterday bears the names of Gramm and Sens. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.). Gramm's name comes first. It was the same in 1981. Then Gramm, a Democrat in only his second House term, sponsored with Rep. Delbert L. Latta (R-Ohio) the budget-cutting legislation that formed the cornerstone of President Reagan's first-term economic policy. The legislative measures became known as "Gramm-Latta," leaving Latta, then the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, "on the other side of the hyphen," a Republican staff aide noted.
For O'Neill and many others, this is the Gramm "track record." It has served him well, but it has also left a legacy of resentment and suspicion, especially among Gramm's former House Democratic colleagues.
That suspicion is one of the strong undercurrents in the deficit debate that has dominated Senate proceedings for more than a week and is about to erupt in the House. Absent Gramm, the budget proposal would have still raised many questions, several House members said this week, but with Phil Gramm's name attached, they said, the suspicions heightened.
The Gramm-Latta legislation was sprung on the House in the 1981 budget process and rushed through to passage, overwhelming Democratic objections at a time when support for Reagan was at its peak. When Gramm unveiled his new plan this month, and tied it to the unavoidable task of raising the federal debt limit, many Democrats thought they saw another Gramm steamroller. "We don't want to repeat the mistakes of 1981," said Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.). "This in a sense is another Gramm spectacular."
"Is the man who was able to panic the House of Representatives in 1981 now able to panic the U.S. Senate in 1985?" asked Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.).
A gangly man who looks older than his 43 years, the balding, bespectacled Gramm does not appear likely to cause so much disruption. But he has proven that when it comes to economics and politics, he should not be underestimated.
Reelected to the House as a Democrat in 1982, Gramm was stripped of his Budget Committee position by angry Democratic leaders who accused him of unconscionable 1981 collaboration with the GOP. The Texan responded by switching parties, resigning from House and then winning a special election, as a Republican, in his old, previously solidly Democratic congressional district.
Two years later, Gramm was in the Senate, a rapid rise for a man who first entered Congress in 1978 and whose only previous political experience was a dismal 29 percent of the vote in a 1976 Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.). But that, of course, was before Gramm-Latta helped move him out of the obscurity of the House's back benches.
Even his harshest critics acknowledge that Gramm is bright. He is also called "hard-working," "ambitious" and a "competent economist." But Gramm has also demonstrated that he is a shrewd political operator.
"He's got a remarkably good sense of timing, and he can build an agenda, forcing members to go along," said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.), who admires Gramm's skills but describes him as "very devious."
"He has sliced through this [deficit] issue in a clear fashion and presented the tough choices," Panetta added.
According to Gramm, he decided last July that this fall would be the time to attack the federal deficit. Everyone knew that the federal debt limit ceiling would have to be raised, and in that legislative imperative, Gramm said he saw his "window of opportunity."
For the moment, Gramm's assessment and sense of timing have proven correct. The move also allowed Republicans to seize the initiative on the deficit issue. When House Democrats met this week to consider responses to the Gramm plan, there were renewed grumblings that while Democrats talk about the deficit, and hope to capitalize on it in the 1986 elections, the House leadership has done little to deal with it.
"The mistake in 1981 was that we, the Democratic Party, did not present a credible alternative to what was offered," said Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.), who shares Gramm's fiscal conservativism. "We are repeating the mistake of 1981. The leadership of our party has been extremely derelict in handling this issue."
Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, disputes that, asserting that the Gramm plan serves to highlight the deficit as an issue Democrats can run on.
"We're not afraid of it," Coehlo said, adding that Democrats will contrast the balanced budget promises of Gramm-Latta in 1981 with the perceived need for the new drastic measure today. "What it says is that Reaganomics doesn't work and that the experiment is a failure," he said.