It was hardly a ringing endorsement, but House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) may have given the best summation of the past month of budget chaos, a month in which the government shut down for three days, President Bush vacillated and lawmakers waged war among themselves -- and left the public disgusted with both political parties.
"The American people have told us that they want this divided government to be a decisive government," Michel said during Saturday's pre-dawn debate as a 21-hour House session drew to a close. The $492 billion, five-year deficit-reduction measure, Michel said, quoting Alexander Hamilton's defense of the Constitution, is "the best the present views and circumstances of the country will permit."
Congress adjourned early yesterday morning and, in retrospect, it seems as though it should have been easier to arrive at the package of tax increases and spending cuts. As big as the number is, when it is spread over five years and compared to the size of the entire economy, it does not represent a radical reordering of national priorities. The tax structure remains progressive with historically low rates. Payments to the poor and elderly remain an important priority, as does military spending, although its share of the pie is shrinking gently.
"These are marginal adjustments in the largest budget in the largest economy in the world," said Carol Cox, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "To call it pain and sacrifice is overstating it."
But it did ask for something more difficult than sacrifice: It demanded the end of a decade of self-delusion.
"We thought somehow we could have it all -- we could cut taxes, raise defense spending, raise benefits and the bill would never come due," said House Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.).
Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman hoped to remove politics from the effort, bypassing the regular congressional budget process in favor of a high-level summit between congressional leaders and administration officials. In the end, though, it proved impossible to separate politics from policy.
For years, economists have been saying that by borrowing record amounts of money, the country was borrowing from the future. Since 1980, the federal government's annual deficits and the national debt have more than tripled.
The future might be starting now. The nation must "reap the bitter harvest of 10 years of national self-indulgence," said Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine).
The package does impose tighter discipline over the federal purse strings. It sets into law spending limits for the next five years, limits that can only be changed if majorities of the House and Senate and the president agree. It reins in spending for Medicare, now the fastest growing federal program. And it raises taxes, despite the "no new taxes" campaign pledge that helped sweep Bush into office.
The economic slowdown and the savings and loan crisis will widen the deficit this year, but eventually the tax and spending changes will be lasting ones that help bring the budget closer to balance.
"This is unquestionably the best you could do, and it is better than anyone could have thought possible at this stage," Darman said. "I don't believe we will have to come back and ask for more."
Many lawmakers believed it fitting that Darman, present at the creation of the problem, be on hand for the unpopular package that sets out to resolve it. According to President Ronald Reagan's first budget director, David A. Stockman, Darman had urged deep tax cuts when he was a White House aide in 1981.
"I don't know which is worse," Stockman quoted Darman as saying: "Winning now and fixing up the budget mess later or losing now and facing a political mess immediately." Stockman recalled Darman concluding: "We win it now, we fix it later."
Darman now says he meant two or three months later, not 10 years later. "The thought never crossed my mind, and I don't think the thought ever crossed Stockman's mind, that we would wait a decade," he said.
In the interim, however, the budget deficit grew to proportions beyond anyone's wildest imagination in 1981. And when called upon to fix it, Darman came up with the idea of a bipartisan summit of congressional leaders and top administration officials.
"When you have a giant-sized problem, the system is not able to handle it," Darman said. "You need extraordinary measures for extraordinary problems."
The summit was intended to give both the administration and the Democrats political cover for unpopular election-year decisions. Tax increases and program cuts would be produced by "immaculate conception," Darman said.
The hope proved futile. Congressional Republicans never rallied around the president after he abandoned his "no new taxes" pledge, thinking he had given up a potent issue in an election year. Democrats seized the political initiative and began pounding away at the issue of tax fairness. "They gave us the opportunity to define what we are really about," Panetta said.
When the House defeated the summit package in the early morning hours of Oct. 5, what most Republicans thought was a political setback turned into a political rout. Democrats rammed their own budget proposals through the House and forced Bush to negotiate on their terms, while the administration stumbled over itself.
"We just sort of threw in the cards," Michel said. "We weren't even up to being players. . . . When we're divided as a minority party we ain't got no strength at all."
The budget brinkmanship that followed cost Republicans dearly as the president's popularity and GOP candidates plummeted in polls. By rejecting the Democrats' demand for a surtax on millionaires, Bush and congressional Republicans made themselves look like protectors of the rich.
It also enabled Democrats to put more of their imprint on the final package. They won a higher income tax rate on the wealthiest Americans without having to accept Bush's capital gains tax cut, limited the increase in out-of-pocket costs for Medicare recipients, cut the proposed gasoline tax increase by nearly half and eliminated a new tax on home heating oil.
They also won what they see as a powerful political issue: fairness. "Many Democrats over here do not view this as the end of the battle for tax fairness," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.). "This has been a tactical battle in a long-term strategic war."
The Bush administration is now in the awkward position of both supporting and criticizing the package. In its defense, Darman asserted that taxes make up only 28 percent of the deficit-reduction package and that it will "get the economy back on a growth path."
He added that the final agreement includes much of what the summit had agreed upon, including changes in the budget process, substantial cuts in entitlement programs and long-sought changes in the postal service, agriculture subsidies and veterans' programs.
Darman also argued that it would not have been possible without the bipartisan summit. "If we had not had a summit, we would have ended up with a minuscule package," he said.
Panetta agreed. "Despite all its problems, it did focus us on the tough choices."
But a Democratic House leadership aide summed it up. "You can't get the politics out of policy decisions," he said.