It's December, and the White House ominously reports that the deficit for the coming budget year, fiscal 1987, will be close to $200 billion. Have you been down this road before? Indeed you have.
The cycle has become a ritual as highly stylized as Japanese classical drama, and with the same attention to symbolic gestures. The fourth annual performance is now beginning. Each year in December the White House warns of a tremendous deficit ahead unless there are great changes. There follow six or eight months of intense struggle between Mr. Reagan and Congress over spending cuts. In midsummer a budget resolution emerges, and its authors explain that, while the immediate cuts are small, the country has been reliably set on a path toward declining deficits in the future. And then, soetime after Thanksgiving, the president's budget director solemnly announces that the deficit projection is once again up in the range of $200 billion. It's as though the deficit were on a spring.
Why does it keep happening? The basic reason is that the tax cut of 1981 has left the government without enough money to provide the basic services that most Americans, including Mr. Reagan, consider essential. This reality has been annually papered over by forecasts that have proved too hopeful.
Perhaps the ritual will change next year. You can already hear hints of it. Eminent people have begun quietly to suggest that, as a practical matter, it might be better not to reduce the deficit drastically just now. While a large deficit is not a desirable way to keep the American economy growing, this argument runs, it is essential in present circumstances to avoid a recession. An American recession would have a fearful impact on Latin America, and might result in waves of defaults on debt. Financial institutions are also under great strain, you will be reminded, and a recession might accelerate a rate of bank failures that is already disquieting. A recession here would send European unemployment sharply higher, and it's already over 11 percent.
Those are all valid points. But a more immediate concern is the effect of a recession on American politics. After much brave talk earlier in this administration about savings and investment, the economy is expanding now only because of an enormous wave of borrowing and consumption. Nobody approves of it, but very few people are prepared to risk a recession to change it. The 1987 budget now being drafted is for the year that precedes the next presidential election campaign. If the president and Congress don't get the deficit under control this winter, it's unlikely that there will be another attempt before the next president takes over. In terms of the budget and fiscal policy, that means 1990.