Now that the Gramm/Rudman deficit reduction blitz has the attention of Congress and the American people -- and since it is likely that momentum spawned by the Senate's quick action will foster passion for similar passage in the House -- it is time to examine the sound economic reasons why the effort to trim the deficit should begin now rather than after the 1986 elections.
As the proposal now stands, it is brilliant only for its political strategy. It is blatant election-year gimmickry and attempts to fool the country into thinking that Congress is getting serious about the deficit. It postpones the pain of serious deficit reduction until after the 1986 elections, when 22 Republican Senate seats are exposed.
But I doubt the American public is going to trust any approach to deficit reduction that puts off the real pain until some point in the future -- especially if putting things off in this fashion enables some politicians to coast through the next election.
Yet, the Gramm/Rudman amendment boldly claims that it is time to get serious about the deficit. The proposal sets a target of $180 billion for the FY '86 deficit, this at a time when the Congressional Budget Office is forecasting a deficit of $175 billion for the same fiscal year. A $5 billion cushion has been conveniently built into the proposal to prevent any significant deficit reduction during the coming fiscal year.
Then, to make certain nothing happens this year, the proposal also allows the $180 billion target to be exceeded by 7 percent before any deficit reduction is mandated. This escape clause means that the deficit could be as high as $192 billion before anything would have to be done about the '86 budget deficit.
How can it be cmed that Gramm/Rudman is a responsible approach to deficit reduction if it would permit this year's spending levels to be $17 billion higher than the levels specified in this year's budget resolution? Gramm/Rudman claims to balance the budget in a systematic way, but what it really seeks is for somebody else to balance the budget at some point in the future when the political landscape is a little neater.
If we are going to get serious about reducing the budget deficit, then let's get serious by starting now, with the FY '86 budget, because there are sound economic reasons for doing so.
Whatever final proposal is approved by the House-Senate conferees, it is certain agreement will be reached that Congress should not tailor a straitjacket that keeps us from responding to cyclical economic conditions. We will have to fashion an alternative that allows flexibility based on economic growth and on the knowledge that it is much sounder policy to cut the deficit in good growth years than in bad.
The reason for getting on with the task in FY '86 is this:
CBO is projecting growth of 3.4 percent in FY '86. Although long-range projections are for continued good growth in FY '87, an increasing number of economists aren't so sure. Too, it is much harder to forecast far into the future than it is to see into the next 12 months. Should growth fall off sharply in 1987, budget cuts of the magnitude fashioned in Gramm/Rudman could be disastrous. If nothe the deficit -- as urged by Gramm/Rudman -- and bad economic conditions dictate nothing be done in 1987, we will continue to stretch decision day farther and farther into the future and allow politicians to escape responsibility.
Historically, presidents have created the "political business cycle" by playing with monetary and fiscal policy to influence elections. With Gramm/Rudman, Congress would sign into law the political business cycle by taking the political heat off in 1986.
In discussing the timeliness of deficit reduction, President Reagan has said:
"We've come to a turning point, a moment for hard decisions. I have asked the Cabinet and my staff a question, and now I put the same questions to all of you: If not us, who? If not now, when?" Gramm/Rudman responds, "Not us. Not now."
As the conference committee continues its work, it should tell the American people the time is now, FY '86. Economic considerations are on their side.