In his first press conference of this election year, Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston chose Thursday to address an issue that could haunt him as he seeks a fourth term in November: his vote against the Gramm-Rudman proposal to balance the federal budget by 1991.
In his opening remarks, the senator acknowledged that Gramm-Rudman, which President Reagan signed in December, could be "good news" if it forces the President and Congress to get together and make the tough choices needed to reduce the federal deficit.
If they do not make those choices, Gramm-Rudman's automatic cuts are supposed to eliminate the $180-billion deficit over the next five years.
There are questions about the constitutionality of part of the law, but many politicians who voted for it--including such Democrats as Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut--were seen as making a symbolic gesture in the increasingly frustrating struggle to balance the budget.
So why did Cranston not make that symbolic gesture?
"I believe we should not abdicate our responsibility to determine the priorities for the American people, in terms of government programs," Cranston said Thursday. "And Gramm-Rudman could force a mindless, thoughtless, across-the-board cut in every program, without regard to any priorities that could damage many programs that we depend upon. I think the most shocking example is the cutbacks that it might require in air safety, cutting back on safety inspectors, cutting back on air controllers at a time when we know that it is not that safe to fly.
"It could (also) bring about a very sweeping transfer of power from the Congress to the President," Cranston continued, "and I am not about to go along with any ending of the power of Congress while I serve in that institution."
Cranston predicted that Gramm-Rudman's mandatory budget cuts would also have an adverse impact on "meat inspectors, the FBI, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Secret Service, education, dealing with toxic wastes, dealing with the need for clean air and water and many other programs that affect not just poor Americans, but all Americans and their quality of life."
The senator acknowledged that his vote against Gramm-Rudman could be a campaign issue later this year. Several of the candidates in the June Republican primary have said Cranston's refusal to support Gramm-Rudman confirms their charge that he is a "big spender."
"I have to vote in ways that I believe are intelligent and wise, without regard to the consequences in terms of elections," Cranston said. "But I believe that by the time the (November) election rolls around, the people will have seen the wisdom of the vote against Gramm-Rudman. I now hope that we can make Gramm-Rudman work and, if so, that will be great. But there are grave dangers in (it)."
As he has before, the senator said his approach to cutting the deficit would be a combination of military and domestic spending cuts and some form of tax increase, such as a minimum tax on wealthy individuals and corporations.
He repeated his opposition to reducing tax rates, a key feature of the tax reform measure passed in December by the House. Cranston opposes reducing the rates, because he believes that will prevent raising additional revenues.
Asked which specific budget cuts he would propose in order to avoid implementing Gramm-Rudman, Cranston said he had not finished drawing up his list.