WASHINGTON — For most Americans as well as many of their elected representatives, nothing epitomizes the apparent impotence of Congress more than the massive federal budget deficit.
Disappointment with the fiscal stewardship of Congress increased sharply last month when--even after a 500-point plunge in the stock market and more than four weeks of high-level negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House--the House and Senate could agree to trim only about 20%, a mere $76 billion, from the projected fiscal 1988 and 1989 budget deficits.
"It was indicative of how little progress could be made, even under the most excruciatingly pressured conditions," said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), a member of the House Budget Committee and a veteran of the congressional process. "Over time, the system has been producing less and less."
Even Ronald Reagan, who campaigned for the presidency eight years ago on a pledge to balance the federal budget and then pushed through tax cuts and defense spending hikes that sent the deficit to unprecedented heights, has not received as much blame as Congress for failing to cut the deficit. As Reagan himself gladly points out, it is the primary constitutional function of Congress--not the President--to decide how tax dollars are to be raised and spent.
Frequently blamed for Congress' persistent inability to cope with deficits is the complex machinery by which it writes its annual blueprint for federal spending--a multitiered legislative process that includes such procedures as authorizations, appropriations, budget resolutions, reconciliation and continuing resolutions.
At the heart of the stalemate, however, is a deeper political reality that members of Congress are unwilling, perhaps even unable, to ignore: Reducing the deficit requires cutbacks in federal programs and increases in taxes that the voting public has thus far shown little willingness to accept.
"You could have the simplest, most rational budget process in the world--which we don't have, but let's assume for a moment that we did--and the budget deficit would be exactly as large as it is now or maybe a couple of million less," said Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles).
Against Tax Hikes
Norman J. Ornstein, political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that, as much as many members of Congress would like to end the budget problem, sentiment in the country has not crystallized enough to allow them to make the far-reaching choices required. Polls show Americans want Congress to balance the budget but not raise taxes or cut programs--creating a Catch 22 that their political leaders cannot overcome.
"I believe there are only two circumstances under which government can act swiftly and sweepingly in changing the status quo," Ornstein said. "The first is when you have a crisis of sufficient magnitude that the public says to policy-makers, 'We're going under for the third time, do whatever is necessary,' and the second is when you have a President, Congress, the business community and the academic community declaring, 'This is terrible and we've got to act.' "
Not only has the deficit failed to create a nationwide consensus or sense of crisis, but the budget debate has become the centerpiece of another monumental political struggle: With voters becoming increasingly independent, the Reagan era ending and the Democrats still searching for a credo to replace New Deal liberalism, both Republicans and Democrats are vying for the loyalties of an enormous number of uncommitted voters.
"Both parties see the long-term majority as up for grabs," Ornstein noted. "There's every incentive to stoop to whatever tactics are necessary to get a little tactical advantage. Neither party trusts the other, as a result."
Members of Congress are also quick to point out that a political solution to the deficit problem is impossible to achieve without active leadership from the President. They insist that Reagan has failed in his responsibility as a national leader by taking an uncompromising position against new taxes.
'Then You're Stuck'
"He is the only person who can speak to the American people and educate them, tell them what the situation is," said Beilenson, one of several members of Congress who not long ago participated in a major House inquiry into the weaknesses of the budget process. "If you have a President, as we have had, who doesn't worry about deficits . . . then you're stuck."
What has been missing from the process is a key element--compromise--that cannot be supplied by reforming the congressional budget-making procedures.