The label on the "Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction plan" has a nice rhythm and rhyme to it. But a more accurate name for the measure Congress is likely to embrace this week, as a way of dodging the blame for the runaway deficits, is the "Rudman- Gramm balanced-budget sham."
The rationale for reversing the names of the principal sponsors, Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) and Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), is that Gramm- Rudman is the opposite of what it purports to be.
In the name of predictability -- a meas toward zero deficits -- it deliberately invites chaos. In the name of responsibility, it almost guarantees that the deficit hot potato will be passed back and forth between President Reagan and Congress even more often than in the past five years.
In the name of fairness, it grants budgetary immunity to politically privileged programs and guarantees that programs whose beneficiaries are weaker will take a disproportionate share of the cuts.
Under the guise of toughness, it maintains the conspiracy of silence about the need for more revenues, and thus invites Reagan to maintain the anti-tax stance that is the principal cause of the deficits. The remarkable thing about Gramm-Rudman is that many of those who are voting for it know it is a scam. Don't take my word for it. Listen to what Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.), one of the conferees who crafted this marvel, told The New York Times: "The theme in what we did was to make this thing so irrational, so ugly that it works as a club."
The "club" is supposed to be the threat of implementing this "ugly . . . irrational" process: rather than let the severe slashes in unprotected domestic and defense programs required by Gramm-Rudman go into effect next year, the sponsors say, the president and leaders of both parties in Congress will surely negotiate a more sensible set of budget compromises.
To which the experience of the past five years screams: fat chance. For five years, Ronald Reagan has dug in to protect his sacred cows (strategic weapons and lower tax rates) and the Democrats have been equally viligant for theirs (Social Security and Medicare). Gramm- Rudman does not require either to yield an inch. Instead, it posits that Reagan and the Democrats will join in an assault on other, unprotected spending. They won't.
What they will do, instead, is try to outfox each other in a game of legislative-executive chicken. That game bears no resemblance to a sensible consideration of the merits of rival budgetary claims. Faced with the mindless Gramm-Rudman mandate to cut unprotected defense and domestic spending, 50-50, across the board, Congress will be invited to appropriate even more lavishly than it does now -- and Reagan to veto appropriations even more offhandedly.
Out of this mischief and chaos, the most basic policy of the government of the world's most powerful nation is somehow to emerge.
It is a fraud -- and a fright. Any proposal to deal with the deficit crisis that addresses the budget process instead of the immediate and real choices on spending and taxes is a fake. Gramm- Rudman is a dangerous fake, because it invites -- indeed, requires -- irresponsible behavior at every stage by every one of the major players in the legislative and executive branch.
The case against Gramm-Rudman was conclusively made last month by Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), who is retiring next year and is free of the requirement for political posturing that persuades so many of his colleagues they'd better vote for this travesty.
As he said, Gramm-Rudman "searches for a way to evade the hard choices that deficit reduction demands. It strives for a way to reach that goal without taking responsibility. It represents budget balancing by anonymous consent."
Mathias said he shares the doubts that have been raised about the constitutionality of Gramm-Rudman. The new process invests three sets of appointed civil servants -- in the Office of Management and Budget, the Congressional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office -- with authority to require one elected official, the president, to impound funds lawfully appropriated by another set of elected officials in Congress. If that is what the Founders intended, it is a puzzle why we even bother with elections.
But beyond that, he said, "the meas, equally troubling danger, the danger of abdication of constitutional responsibility. The proposal strives for a system that makes both legislators and the executive impotent spectators of the budget process. But it will fail and it deserves to fail."
Mathias is right, and when the failure and the fraud of Gramm-Rudman becomes evident next year, I hope the voters will deal with those who concocted and supported it.