If you ever wondered what the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget proposal is all about, take a look at the American Economic Association's 1974 Directory of Members. There, in response to a routine request to list his "current research project," economist (now Texas Republican senator) Phil Gramm let it all hang out. His goal, Gramm said, is "How to Get Rid of Government."
Not how to get government off our backs, mind you. Just: Get rid of it.
That has been Phil Gramm's long- term interest in life -- as an academic, as a Democratic congressman who switched parties to make the grade in Texas politics, and now as the co-author of one of the most irresponsible pieces of legislation ever to surface in Congress: the Gramm/Rudman proposal to mandate annual budget-deficit reductionof $36 billion until a balanced budget is reached in 1991.
No one can doubt the urgent need to cut back sharply on the deficit. But to do it by rigid formula, without regard to the relative importance of programs or to the actual state of the nation's economy, is sheer madness. And who says that the budget must be actually balanced, rather than brought down to decent proportions?
The president would be required to submit a budget that meets the Gramm/Rudman targets, and Congress would be required to pass a budget resolution conforming to the same targets. If it didn't, automatic spending reductions enforcing the targets go into effect -- come hell or high water, prosperity or depression.
But there are exemptions: Social Security benefits, contracts already agreed to (which shields big-ticket weapons systems accounting for 38 percent of the defense program), interest payments on the national debt, and "tax expenditures" (read that tax loopholes). These exemptions throw a disproportionate share of the spending cuts on everything else.
Most reductions that are made in defense would fall not on hardware but on operations and maintenance monies -- which already get the short end of the stick. Moreover, as Robert Greenstein, director of the nonpartisan Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, points out, the starting point for Gramm/Rudman cuts is a defense budget with 3 percent real growth built in, whereas many civilian programs are frozen. So while there would be some impact on defense, the real burden of moving toward a balanced budget would continue to fall heaviest on nondefense programs.
But Congress' slickest trick, if it buys Gramm/Rudman, will be bragging to the voters that it has balanced the budget when in reality it bucked responsibility for enforcing the cuts to the president.
Senate Republicans Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Bob Packwood of Oregon, as well as Democratic liberals Edward M. Kennedy oMassachusetts and Paul Simon of Illinois, support Gramm/Rudman in the mistaken notion that if President Reagan is faced with a legal mandate to cut the deficit, he finally will opt to raise taxes rather than cut defense.
They underrate Reagan's anti-tax, pro-military fervor -- and endorsement of Gramm's "Get Rid of Government" philosophy. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger has warned, plainly, that Reagan "would have to retain the authority to request the amounts" that he considers vital to national security.
Let us not be naive: there would be plenty of ways out for the president, who could pressure Congress with a declaration of national emergency. He also gains enormous leverage because of the automatic-reduction feature of Gramm/Rudman.
As Greenstein put it on a National Public Radio broadcast, "He can say to Congress, 'If you don't give me a budget plan I can approve, I'll veto it, triggering the automatic reduction, which will hit housing or health care for the elderly hard.' So if Congress wants to avoid that, they have to give him a very light hit on defense, and no tax increases."
The worst part of the whole Gramm/Rudman deception is that House Democrats, who understand that it is bad economics to cut spending automatically if a recession is under way or in prospect (and that's what the legislation requires), were trapped by their gutless colleagues in the Senate. "Once Teddy Kennedy caved in," says a key House committee staffer, "we were licked. Now, we can't get 217 votes for anything, unless we have a zero deficit at the end of the line."
Otherwise, some 90 House Democrats have concluded, their Republican opponents will mount devastating radio and TV campaigns against them in next year's election.
That's why Gramm's dream of getting rid of government is coming to fruition: the first priority of legislators -- including many Democrats who helped Reagan create the massive budget deficit by voting for and expanding the tax giveaway act of 1981 -- is to save their jobs. Saving the country from know-nothing legislation is less urgent.