Benevolent-looking Arthur Burns, former head of the federal reserve board and one of the most respected economic voices in America, told the Senate Banking Committee that inflation has brought the country to a "crisis unmatched in its dangers since the great depression of the 1930s."
Dr. Burns is now connected with the American Enterprise Institute here, and his menacing words belied his fatherly appearance. Speaking on the day that President Carter announced his economic program, Dr. Burns said: "The time available for averting a disastrous climax to our inflation is running short."
Maybe President Carter can get his program through Congress; maybe he can't. Some say it goes too far; others that it doesn't go far enough. Can the creaky, deadlock- prone system of divided powers work efficiently in this kind of an emergency in any case? It is not a war emergency when the chief executive is automatically given special war powers; it is a deep-rooted, controversial, vastly complicated peacetime emergency in which sacrifices must be made, and the question is, who will bear them.
President Carter was amazed when he took office, he told interviewer Howard K. Smith (in a program for the Public Broadcasting Service last month): "One of the biggest surprises to me in coming to Washington has been the extraordinary and excessive influence of special interest groups."
He meant the lobbyists. They make a sort of third branch of the legislature. They have been roused like hornets by Mr. Carter's specific, urgent proposals to cut spending and oil use. It's different from what Mr. Carter expected.
"There is," he charged, "no lobbying effort, no interest group, that has any influence in Washington for a calm, measured, long- range, moderate solution to an extremely complicated question."
This certainly overstated the case and reveals a certain naivete; the theory is of course, that it is the President who speaks for the whole nation, the only man elected nationally, who is supposed to take charge. The theory is, too, that when the President appeals, balancing forces respond. The success or failure of a President is often judged by his ability to get such response. We may differ on the details of Mr. Carter's appeal, but there is no doubt that this is one of those decisive tests now.
It is natural and legitimate that nearly every big interest in the country now has lobbyists in the capital. They have grown remarkably in recent years. Some are one-interest groups like the National Rifle Association which fights successfully to block federal handgun registration; some are powerful trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute, or the Highway Users Association, or the AFL-CIO. Their voice has strengthened as party discipline within Congress has diminished. Political parties used to act as a buffer; congressmen could protest that they were sorry to vote as they did, but they had an obligation to support the President, say, or maybe oppose him. Parties are weaker and at the same time Congress has reduced the power of the speaker and the committee chairmen and party leaders. Individual congressmen are more exposed. In 1974 there were 89 political action committees of corporations (a vehicle for collecting and distributing campaign funds); now there are around 1, 000. The oil money finding its way into congressional campaigns through contributions is extraordinary; Congressional Quarterly estimates that it amounted to $2.8 million between January, 1977, and Oct. 1, 1979. The magazine Politics Today says "$3.9 million was given by petroleum interests to present House and Senate members," in the two year interval. Politicians are supposed to keep score on these benefactions for the Federal Election Commission. Oil money is only part of it.
President Carter's anti-inflation package touches many interest groups, the oil industry among others. Presidents Nixon and Ford tried and failed to get Congress to pass comprehensive energy programs. The situation now is worse than ever. As Dr. Burns says, inflation "soon begins to dissolve the glue that holds our society together."