Congressional Democrats, frightened at the specter of the self-propelled meat-ax called Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, are trying to figure out the best way to avoid its mindless slashing of the federal budget.
The statesmen among them want to give the president a chance to back down from his no-tax-increase pronouncement and let the combination of budget cuts and new taxes remove the G-R-H threat. The politicians hope to convince the electorate that the national defense and the Pentagon budget are not precisely synonymous. The compromisers want to pursue a bipartisan course of program cuts, tax reform and frill removal to reach the mandated deficit reductions.
I keep waiting to hear from the Machiavellians, who (if they exist) must understand that the simplest way to extricate themselves from the political consequences of this silly and dangerous legislation -- and, conincidentally, to turn the Republican Party into a shambles -- would be to give President Reagan everything he asks for. He wanted mandatory deficit reduction, and in Gramm-Rudman-Hollings he got it. Now he wants to increase outlays for the Pentagon and the space program and the Internal Revenue Service, while chopping nearly $2 billion from student aid programs, halving outlays for vocational education, eliminating a 19-year- old program designed to help welfare recipients find work, and cutting deeply into the Job Corps -- all of which threaten to increase joblessness.
Any truly fiendish Democrat would give him what he demands, and also back his call for no new taxes. Then when it became clear what a disaster of a budget the president has sent to Congress, and what the G-R-H ax would do to some of the most popular federal programs, it would be the GOP that would have to suffer the slings and arrows of an outraged public.
The public reaction might be enough to reduce the Republican Party to whimpering irrelevancy. Then the Democrats, clear of any responsibility in the disaster, could take the lead in restoring sanity and compassion to the national government.
In his State of the Union message, the president evoked this month's favorite topic, the family. "How often we read of a husband and wife, both working, struggling from paycheck to paycheck to raise a family, meet a mortgage, pay their taxes and bills," he said.
The Machiavellians might evoke a different family phenomenon: the headstrong kid who disregards all parental warnings of disaster and insists on doing things his own way. Every parent of such a child has at least toyed with the idea of letting the kid have his way, leaving it to the predictably unpleasant consequences to teach the hard lesson. He doesn't want to wear his hat and boots while playing in the snow? Then let him freeze his heinie off. Maybe next time he'll listen.
"It's time we reduced the federal budget and left the family budget alone," the president said the other night. "We do not face large deficits because American families are undertaxed. We face those deficits because the federal government overspends."
Not quite. We face unprecedented deficits because Ronald Reagan simultaneously instituted major tax cuts and increased defense outlays, on the now-discredited notion that the tax cuts would lead to increased revenues. Remember "supply side"? The newly requested budget cuts will hit hard not just at poor families but also at middle-class couples trying to educate their children and see to their parents' medical care. They will be furious when the impact of the Reagan proposals hits home.
The Democratic leadership is behaving now the way most parents behave: trying to save little Ronnie from the natural consequences of his own bad choices.
True Machiavellians would give him what he wants. The resulting political frostbite might be harmful to the poor, dangerous for the economy and disastrous for the nation. But wouldn't it be great for the Democrats!