Now that the infamous Gramm-Rudman- Hollings budget-balancing gimmickry has been enacted into law, the Democratic Party must assess its shared responsibility for getting it through Congress.
In the end, 22 Senate Democrats (including Edward M. Kennedy) voted for the bill, exactly equal to the 22 who had the guts to call it a fakery. And in the House, almost as many Democrats voted for it as against -- 118 to 130. These Gramm-Rudman Democrats will have to live with their vote to dismember the old left- labor-liberal-inner city coalition.
To be sure, some House Democrats succeeded in amending the original Senate bill to exclude from its automatic budget-cutting ax eight programs serving low-income families and disabled veterans, including Medicaid and food stamps.
And a few Democratic senators -- including Pat Moynihan of New York and Gary Hart of Colorado -- bluntly told their colleagues that Gramm-Rudman was bad medicine and a shirking of their responsibilities.
But as a party, the Democrats, in their new reliance on the political payoff of "fiscal integrity," were afraid to try to kill Gramm-Rudman outright. Meanwhile, President Reagan's willingness to accept Gramm-Rudman as his own lends credence to the charge made some weeks ago by Moynihan that from the very beginning, the president and then budget director David Stockman planned the huge tax cuts of 1981, along with the boost in military spending, for the precise purpose of creating the deficit that would then allow the final assault on social programs. Moreover, no one -- Gramm, Rudman, Hollings, Reagan or Kennedy -- has yet explained why a balanced budget should be a national goal in and of itself. The proper goal, of course, should be to balance the economy, one that is both compassionate and competitive. That is something that President John F. Kennedy understood when he recommended a tax cut despite the existence of a budget deficit in 1962.
Gramm, the genius behind the revolution that takes budget decision-making out of the hands of individual congressmen, is disarmingly candid about his objective.
"The whole genius of the American political system is imposing limits on the power of government. I think the American people want to control the growth and size and the expense of the government," he said in an interview.
Last week on PBS's "Capitol Journal," Gramm brushed aside discussion of one basic weakness of his scheme -- its inadequate provisions for dealing with recession. Since Herbert Hoover turned a recession into Depression by attempting to cut government spending as an antidote to bad times, no national administration -- Republican or Democratic -- has repeated that mistake. But Gramm- Rudman will require budget cuts even if the economy is limping along, say at just a 2 percent real growth rate, accelerating the downturn.
The precise economic consequences of Gramm-Rudman are among the major worries. According to Data Resources, Inc., unless the Fed loosens the money supply considerably, the fiscal drag of deep, sudden budget reductions under Gramm-Rudman will push the unemployment rate sharply higher, to over 9 percent in 1987 before it retreats to around current levels.
That could provide a major surprise for congressmen who expect to brag to their constituents that they voted to balance the budget.
But Phil Gramm doesn't intend to rest on his laurels. He served notice that he'll be back next year trying to get those eight exempted programs under his budg would make it easier to meet deficit targets without excessive whacks at the military budget, or raising taxes. Even the exemption of Social Security benefits isn't safe forever.
Gramm doesn't talk much about the dangerous aspects of his brainchild. He is on the way to success in achieving his pet goal -- eliminating government services -- unless the courts declare the whole business unconstitutional, or a new Congress comes to its senses.
The folly of the whole exercise of budget-balancing via a blind formula is matched only by the deception symbolized in 1981 by the Laffer supply-side "curve" that was supposed to yield greater tax revenues and ample national savings out of lower tax rates. What supply-side economics produced, when tested, was the giant deficit that curbed the flow of savings, sapped the Democratic Party's virility and now, finally, has given us the Gramm-Rudman era.