Congress can go home for the holidays now, and perhaps it had better -- quickly. Whatever remains unfinished, it has done enough. It has superimposed on the national government a system that promises political chaos and virtually guarantees self-imposed government-by-crisis. That this historic monument to failure seems the best that can be done, that it might even compel desired results, only reinforces the sense of political impotence that has characterized the 99th Congress.
The real test of the deficit-reduction bill (Gramm-Rudman-Hollings) signed into law by the president won't occur until early next year. That's when Congress will begin seriously deliberating how to reach its legally mandated goal of getting the deficit down to $144 billion for fiscal 1987. And that's when the Reagan administration will formally present its list of suggested budget cuts.
There's no surprise about that list. It already exists. It's filled with the familiar suspects on former budget director David A. Stockman's "hit list" and has surfaced year after year during the Reagan presidency. Then as now it's aimed at the same targets: students and farmers and veterans and small businessmen and users of mass transit, among others -- all of them the middle class. And the least powerful politically, as well as the weakest personally, in our society will also be asked to pay the price for this administration's failed economic policy and its rising sea of debt. They will be asked to suffer because the president has put other alternatives off-limits. No defense cuts, no Social Security cuts, no tax increases, he says.
So to reach the legal deficit target Congress will have to do one of several things:
*Accept the Reagan hit list and make about $50 billion in domestic spending cuts from the departments and agencies that dispense funds and oversee programs affecting those kinds of Americans. That is the prescribed administration route. To use the president's admonition to his current budget director, James C. Miller III, as quoted by The Wall Street Journal, it is from those groups that the cuts will be expected to "draw blood."
*Reject the president's formula and set up a bitter confrontation between Capitol Hill and the White House by pushing for cuts in defense and/or raising taxes commensurately to make up the shortfall, both courses the president says he will not accept.
*Find a way to avoid again making these Draconian decisions and postpone the inevitable hard choices by revising the just-passed law. It will be, after all, a crucial election year, one in which political courage will not be a common commodity.
Even though this is the season for charity and good will, the American people are due an explanation -- or at least a reminder -- of how this sorry state came about and from whose hands this crisis has been fashioned. Those suspects, too, are entirely familiar.
Go back to Aug. 13, 1981. It's 10:32 a.m., a triumphant, ebullient Ronald Reagan is back at Rancho del Cielo after having swept all before him legislatively on Capitol Hill. He meets reporters outside his ranch for a ceremony to mark his signing into law two pieces of legislation -- the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 and the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 -- just passed by euphoric leaders forming a coalition of Republicans and Democratic "Boll Weevils." Prominent among the latter is that erstwhile Democrat, Phil Gramm of Texas. As television cameras record the carefully staged scene in front of the ranch, the president says:
"These bills that I'm about to sign . . . represent a turnaround of almost half a century of a course this country's been on and mark an end to the excessive growth in government bureaucracy, government spending, government taxing.
"And we're indebted for all of this -- I can't speak too highly of the leadership, Republican leadership in the Congress and of those Democrats who so courageously joined in and made both of these truly bipartisan programs . . . . This represents $130 billion in savings over the next three years. This represents $750 billion in tax cuts over the next five years. And this is only the beginning . . . ."
Reagan signed the bills with a flourish, using many fountain pens and joking about employing one pen per letter of his name; then, after inviting the reporters to "fire away" with questions about those bills, he teasingly rebuked them when a reporter immediately asked: "How about another subject, Mr. President?"
"You mean," the president replied, "in the face of all this, you want to change the subject?"
Later in that news conference this exchange took place between a reporter and Reagan:
Q. Mr. President, back on the budget for a minute. Given the so-called soggy economic conditions, it seems that you're going to have greater deficits over the next few years, less revenues, more deficits. What are those deficits now? How much more in budget cuts are you going to have to make over the next couple of years, and will you still be able to balance the budget in '84?
A. Well, this has always been our goal and will continue to be our goal. But remember that we always said there were further budget cuts for the coming years, for '83 and '84. These are the ones that go into effect in '82.
Q. How much more, though?
A. Well, we know, of course, that we will have a sizable deficit for '81. There was nothing we could do about that. And, as you know, the government has been operating in '81 without a budget, just on appropriations, and we have tried to limit once we got into management what we could, but the die was already cast as to the amount of this deficit.
Now, the possibility of increased deficits in the coming years over our previous figures are due in part to not getting totally what we had asked for in the budget cuts, but also that the tax package finally came out with additional reductions . . . . I'm not sure that we might not have been, however, too conservative in our estimates on the tax program, because, remember, our tax proposals were based on the belief that the cut in tax rates would not mean a comparable cut in tax revenues, that the stimulant to the economy would be such that the government might find itself getting additional revenues, as it did last year in the cut of the capital gains tax.
Some stimulant, some additional governmental revenues, some dawning of a brave new deficit-free balanced-budget era. So much for supply-side Reaganomics.
Last act: four years later, Washington, Dec. 12, the White House. The deficits have not declined as forecast; the national debt has doubled in four years to $2 trillion; governmental revenues have not increased; the predicted great increase in rate of personal savings that was supposed to occur has dropped to the lowest level since the government began compiling that statistic 26 years ago; the president again is signing a major and just-passed piece of legislation, the Red Ink Act that is Gramm-Rudman-Hollings.
No flourish of pens this time. No public ceremony even. No reporters and no cameras present to record the scene. No presidential invitation for questions about what this means. And why this uncharacteristic seclusion, this playing down of a truly significant political event?
Simple. As Reagan's press secretary explained, it was "no big deal."