A revolution is going on in Congress. For the first time in half a century the legislators are cutting back on social programs. At the same time defense expenditures will be vastly increased.
Congressmen rub their eyes. President Reagan is urging them on. The first phase of the battle has ended, but it's just a preliminary chapter.
It is doubtful if the general public can penetrate the confusion. The man in the street appears to favor spending cuts so far, but he has hardly realized just what is at stake in the Washington hubbub. Post offices, for example: One Democratic proposal is to cut a billion dollars in postal costs by closing or consolidating up to 10,000 of the nation's smallest post offices. The move seems to be a political ploy, but it represents many other uncertainties at this stage in the budget process.
How much will food stamps be cut, or jobs programs be turned back to the states? Not for 50 years have such questions been asked here.
The first phase in the process is for individual committees to accept the overall ceilings set by Congress earlier and to report them back to the budget committees. In the House of Representatives 15 committees and in the Senate 14 committes have prepared tentative reports.
Phase 2 comes this week as the respective Senate and House budget committees package the individual proposals. They will prepare a conference budget bill that may run to 4,000 pages. The procedure is under a relatively untested "reconciliation" process. Theoretically, conflicts between House and Senate commitee proposals will be resolved. But storms await the program from either side. Republican and Democratic leaders are tentatively drafting, and may propose, alternative budgets.
The overall goal is to cut some $35 billion from the budget. Technically, at any rate, this goal seems to have been achieved in the reports so far. Even after the cuts the United States will spend more money next fiscal year than in the current one.
The Reagan budget calls for an average increase in military spending of 9.2 percent above inflaton every year between 1980 and 1986. By contrast, President Carter proposed 5.5 percent real growth in the same years. Congress approves the armament increase so far, but many are uneasy at the deep cuts in domestic programs that it requires. It appears to be a bigger shift in national priorities than occurred during the Korean and Vietnam war periods, and it is accompanied by President Reagan's recommendations to cut into social programs.
Politically, the reaction to the budget revolution may come in two stages: first, the immediate battle; second, the public response when it feels the cuts.
In the first stage the White House appears to be making the issue a matter of spending cuts: Are you for government economy and lower taxes, or are you for expansion of the welfare state? The "villain" of the drama in this script would be House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massuchusetts. Mr. O'Neill told ABC's "Issues and Answers" June 7 that he was against the Reagan tax bill because "it's geared for the wealthy" and "is going to send inflation through the roof."
Thus, the outcome of the first stage may turn, not on whether the radical reduction should be made, but on how it should be made.
The second stage may have more effect on future elections. The public generally applauds budget cuts, buy how will it react when the impact of actually funding cutbacks comes home?
Typical examples: $3.2 billion of cuts in social security, including phasing out student benefits; $1.5 billion taken out of the food stamp program, removing perhaps 1 million of 22 million recipients; dairy price supports reduced by $500 million. Also, targeting various agencies for extinction -- like the sevenyear-old program providing legal services for the poor.
Some congressmen who don't like cuts but are caught in the mandatory "reconciliation" process appear to be planting land mines in their retreat. The recommendation to save $100 million by closing 10,000 village post offices appears to be such a gambit.
Washington has never seen anything quite like it. Everyone favors civilian austerity and military expansion in theory. But will Americans still feel that way when the next congressional election rolls around in 1982? That's unpredictab le.