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Monster Politics

November 17, 1987

White House and Congressional budget negotiators stared their 800-pound gorilla in the face Monday and did not even blink once--before backing off. The foe was Godzilla and King Kong in one: the nation's program of entitlement payments indexed for inflation so that they grow forever unless Congress and the President finally find the courage to bring them in check.

In 16 meetings, the negotiators had come within $2 billion of putting together a deficit-reduction package of roughly $30 billion, consisting of about $10 billion in new revenues, $5 billion in defense cuts, $10 billion in domestic spending cuts and several billion in miscellaneous savings, partly from gimmicks that would produce savings for one year only. The final gap could be closed by eliminating for three months the cost-of-living increases (COLAs) in entitlement programs including Social Security and federal employee retirement.

The lobby in behalf of Social Security recipients is one of the most potent in the country. It cranked up over the weekend and clearly was making itself felt in Washington Monday. It did not help, of course, that President Reagan earlier declared that he would consider any means of reducing the deficit by $23 billion or more during the negotiations except for Social Security.

A three-month delay would not cut into existing benefits or break any commitment made when Social Security was enacted half a century ago. The automatic COLAs date back only to the early 1970s. The delay would have demonstrated that everyone was prepared to sacrifice to some extent to help pare the federal budget deficit and avoid the automatic cuts that would be imposed under the Gramm-Rudman law on Friday. Such a move would have demonstrated to the stock markets and the nation's anxious trading partners that Washington was serious enough about cutting the deficit that it even was willing to take a little political heat. But the gorilla grunted mildly and political courage went flying.

Congress and the White House will have to do something about entitlement COLAs at some point because these programs will grow by an estimated $100 billion by 1992. For now, the negotiators are back to scratching elsewhere for another $2 billion with some talk of postponing Friday's Gramm-Rudman deadline if the solution cannot be found by then.

Scratching for something, sadly, has been the story of the 16 days of negotiations. The group picks up one item one day, eyes it warily, finds it a little warm politically and then drops it. The negotiators seem to think that most Americans are not willing to sacrifice in order to maintain the nation's economic stability. But they will never know that unless they exercise leadership and actually ask for some modest sacrifice.

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