The President and Congress have spent all year debating deficit reduction and only now are down to the specifics -- the "reconciliation" and appropriations bills that will actually do the job. These are the bills to carry out the broad policy contained in the budget resolution finally adopted in August. Budget resolutions settle only some issues; they leave a lot of blanks to be filled in. The fights over implementation are turning out to be as sharp and in many ways as important as the loftier deliberations that preceded them.
Thus White House chief of staff Donald Regan warned last Friday that the administration opposes the Senate reconciliation bill in its current form, in part because of powerful policy consequences it could have for taxes. In taking down the deficit the l would levy two new taxes, neither large but each with the capacity for taking the government into a new realm of taxation. One would apply to the general run of manufactured goods, to pay for cleaning up leaking chemical dumps under Superfund, the other to imports, to finance a new program for workers who have lost their jobs to foreign competition. The bill would also perpetuate at 16 cents a pack the federal excise tax on cigarettes, otherwise scheduled to revert to 8 cents.
Its sponsors estimate the reconciliation legislation would reduce the deficit by $21.6 billion this year, and the taxes are an important part of that -- but Mr. Regan said the president's advisers would urge him to veto the bill unless the tax provisions and some others (involving particularly Medicare and offshore oil revenues) are cut out. And what of the deficit if a veto were sustained? That presumably would be the next day's problem.
The Senate has been working through a similar set of choices, in action on appropriations bills. In 1984, it took the Senate about a quarter of an hour to pass the appropriations bill for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and 17 independent agencies; last week it took two days. Much of the debate involved a weighing of the budget resolution against cuts proposed in general revenue sharing and health programs for veterans. The Senate finally compromised, sticking to its budget targets but fudging just a little on the cuts; it found some money elsewhere, including in the favorite secret drawer of all budget-cutters, administrative expenses.
These efforts to fine-tune the year's results are, of course, all unassailable. The president, his aides and members of Congress are supposed to fight about which programs to cut -- and the administration is right in some of its objections to the reconciliation bill, particularly to the clean-up tax (which quacks a lot like a regressive value-added tax) and to the shell game that would be played with oil revenues. But remember that for five years the problem of the deficit has been regularly subordinated to policy preferences on taxes, defense and social programs. That is what is continuing to happen, and at some point the finessing process has to stop.