Friends and admirers of the Gramm-Rudman Act have been quick to insist that the Feb. 7 flick of the judicial snickersnee has inflicted a flesh wound, not a beheading. We shall see, no doubt, when the creature next shakes its head.
Meanwhile, the three judges have reminded Congress of a truism of elementary civics and law: Executive decisions, such as "sequestrating" (impounding) funds, are for the executive branch.
In a fit of optimism, Congress had designated its creature, the U.S. comptroller-general (in effect its chief accountant), to "order" into effect the Draconian budget cuts timetabled by Gramm-Rudman. The comptroller- general was to do so in the likely event that Congress failed to comply with self-imposed targets designed to whittle the deficit to zero by fiscal 1991. But since Congress may fire a comptroller-general, he is as much its creature as the secretary of the Treasury is the president's.
That was the elementary constitutional point at issue in the Feb. 7 decision, but it is the fulcrum on which fiscal politics of great moment may pivot.
From its origins, early last fall, the Gramm-Rudman amendment was an elaborate evasive maneuver. What was to be evaded, as before, was the deliberate and informed exercise of choice within limited means for which Congress is elected.
Congress is not deceived as to those means, though the White House may be. It is aware that the yearly deficit has leapt upward by several percentage points of GNP, that real interest rates hang high, that the trade deficit is ruinous, that the national debt has doubled in five years and that the compounding of interest charges on the debt is itself a threat to the nation's economic stability.
But like an overstrung horse, Congress has refused the politically dangerous fences that stand between it and the squaring of accounts. People who make hard choices in the public's behalf are not praised; they are scrutinized. If you vote to build a hundred B-1 bombers while cutting college- loan guarantees, your constituents notice.
Gramm-Rudman was designed, in desperation, to take the political curse off painful but imperative choices. It enshrines the pretense that budget surgery may be performed not by people but by an impersonal machine from which human volition and prejudice have been eliminated.
But the machine needed a "trigger" and someone to pull it. The comptroller-general, at first glance an improbable choice, was designated.
Ordinarily, this little-heard-of functionary and his agency act as watchdogs, evaluating the use by various agencies of the tax dollars Congress gives them. Though the rationale is budgetary, these evaluations frequently have policy implications. Yet the comptrollr-general and his agency are expected to be impartial and are not equipped or expected to make macroeconomic judgments on bitterly contested national priorities. It was, in fact, this very neutrality as to broader fiscal policy that made the comptroller general an appealing choice. But the court has said no.
With a role for the comptroller-general disallowed, there is within the Gramm-Rudman law a backup scheme known as "certification." When Congress balks at the fence of budget-cutting (or tax-raising) mandated by the Gramm-Rudman targets, it may "certify" the foreordained cuts by joint resolution.
Few seriously expect the dire Gramm-Rudman machinery to be put fully into effect, with or without judicial consent. The Supreme Court will take up the case. However it decides, the betting is that the horse will balk and Congress will again dismount and walk around the fence.
The reprieve cannot be of indefinite length. Congress will need sme alternative pathway out of fiscal fantasyland. That may mean -- gasp! -- politics, which is to say the reinvention of candid electioneering in which real issues are discussed. A revival of old- fashioned legislative leadership would also help. So would a dawning of fiscal realism at the White House.
Legislative machines such as Gramm-Rudman may disguise, but cannot do, the donkey work of politics, no matter what the judges say. Like computers, such automata only replicate the limitations and strategies of their human creators and programmers.