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Budget Shoot-Out

March 15, 1985

Democracy is not a tidy business, particularly when power is shared between major political parties. It is no surprise, therefore, that writing a federal budget can be cumbersome and contentious. Just for instance, the Senate Budget Committee went through two weeks of contortions before voting 11 to 9 for a draft spending plan for the fiscal year starting in October.

The draft is just that--a starting point for a budget resolution that sets targets and limits for raising and spending nearly $1 trillion during fiscal 1986. Specific allocations of money for the various agencies come later, through the adoption of separate appropriation bills.

The plan has some important flaws. It avoids the issue of new taxes, which will have to be considered at some point. The committee's Social Security freeze and cuts in Medicare raise serious questions about fairness in setting the country's priorities. But at least the resolution focuses on the major fiscal problem facing the country at the moment--reducing the budget deficit. By cutting the deficit to roughly $100 billion in 1988, it meets the goal that the White House earlier set for itself and failed to achieve.

Further, the resolution recognizes that there is a legitimate argument over how much to spend for defense. It trims the President's request to current levels, plus inflation.

By contrast, President Reagan was off ridiculing committee members for squandering the people's money and borrowing language from a movie cop on a rampage to describe how he would shoot down any proposed tax increase. If Congress wants to force him to veto a tax bill, he said: "Go ahead, make my day." He castigated the "spending-splurge" senators for not being willing to face up to tough budget decisions, and claimed that the multibillion-dollar defense buildup had nothing to do with the budget deficit.

Reagan always has been tough on big-spending Democrats, but the Budget Committee is controlled by Republicans. These are members of his own party he's talking about. The President did have some cause to be irked. The committee's most decisive vote of all, 17-4, came in rejecting Reagan's own budget proposal.

While far from completed, the committee's plan sets the stage for some realistic negotiations leading to a plan that requires sacrifice from all budget constituencies, not just domestic programs. Such negotiations can go forward whenever the President decides to come off the sound stage and participate in the process.

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