The Gramm-Rudman budget amendment, now signed into law, is the wrong way to allocate public funds, a sign of impotence, an effort to deceive, an abdication of responsibility -- and we welcome it. The measure embraces the goal of a balanced budget in five years and sets up a process whereby, if the president and Congress fail to reach declining deficit targets each year, a sturdy robot will supposedly do it for them. A little over half the budget would be exempt; the rest would be cut in lock step.
There is no question that Gramm-Rudman is a dodge. One need only look to the bill to which the amendment was attached: necessary legislation raising the debt ceiling beyond $2 trillion for the first time so that the Treasury can continue to borrow to cover the killer deficits of the last five years. If there were a true disposition to deal with the deficit, the president and members of Congress could have done that instead of this, which puts off the hard part.
There is no question, either, that next year they will try to put off the hard part again. They always do; they already are trying. There is talk that the reconciliation bill making structural cuts in various domestic programs to conform to this year's budget resolution -- it would cut the deficit $20 billion -- may be set aside in the rush to adjourn. The president has threatened to veto it anyway -- it contains tax increases -- and when the houses reconvene the Gramm-Rudman process will be in place to fall back on. Thus the leaders comfort themselves.
It is true that the Gramm-Rudman meat ax, if it ever does fall, will have uneven, chaotic and in some cases even counterproductive effects, saving in the short term only to cost more in the long. Defense will suffer, but so will the other targets, the so-called discretionary domestic programs that are subject to the annual appropriations proc name it -- aid to education, highway funds, small business and environmental programs, support for state and local governments -- all would be scythed.
Still, we think it is a good idea. You know a proposition partly by its enemies. As finally written, this was opposed most vigorously by those whose programmatic victories in the first five Reagan years are the very reason the deficit is now so high, the chief protectors of the first term's tax cuts and defense increases. Gramm-Rudman does this: for the first time in the Reagan administration it says to the president that he cannot have it all. It is meant to force him finally either to cut defense spending (which Congress has already curbed) or find the taxes to pay for it.
Opponents have worried that the amendment will transfer power to the president. On the contrary. He continues to say as he fancifully has for five years that there is another way to bring down the deficit -- through cuts in domestic spending. But he has concurred in exempting from any cuts the largest domestic program, Social Security, and the Democrats have now civilized Gramm-Rudman by exempting the much less costly sustaining programs for the poor as well. There is not enough left on the domestic side to cut.
The administration gambled when it first endorsed Gramm-Rudman; the president's advisers may have thought Congress would back off. Instead, it built a box for him -- and for itself.