PRESIDENT Reagan liked the idea of mandatory balance-the-budget legislation, simply because he viewed it as an extension of his long campaign to achieve spending cuts that thus far had eluded him. Further, despite advice from within his own Cabinet that such legslation would entail reductions in defense, Mr. Reagan was undeterred in his support for this approach, and for this reason:
The always-optimistic President sees mutual cutbacks in arms being achieved at Geneva, or at least over the next year or two at subsequent summits, which will permit the United States to reduce outlays for defense -- even though increased expenditures for carrying forward the ``star wars'' defense project would be needed.
Indeed, the President has always sought legislation to put pressure on the Democrats in Congress to reduce or eliminate domestic programs, particularly social programs. The big tax cuts he achieved back at the beginning of his administration were sold as devices to ease the load on all taxpayers, but, more than that, to stimulate capital formation and thus, down the road, spur increased economic growth for the US.
The savings rate, ironically, has not gone up. In fact, it has gone down, by recent historical measures. And the economic picture has been clouded, although the nation continues to grow at a modest pace. Still, the budget deficit, which Mr. Reagan had earlier pledged to eradicate, continues to bound upward to an alarming amount. In response, Reagan could have moved to increase taxes -- and he did finally agree to accept some ``revenue enhancements.''
All the same, the President has to a large extent attained his basic objective.
As House Budget Committee chairman William Gray so aptly puts it: Reagan by letting the deficit get bigger and bigger, while resisting tax increases, was using this approach as a ``hammer'' on the Democrats to make them cut domestic programs.
The mandatory reduce-the-budget concept would give the President another hammer that he could use on Congress to work his will in getting at social programs he thinks simply must be trimmed.
When the President endorsed the Gramm-Rudman bill, which calls for Congress to follow a schedule that would bring about a balanced budget over the next few years, most Democrats cried ``Ouch.''
At first, many Democrats tried to demolish Gramm-Rudman with derisive rhetoric. Some called it ``nothing but blue smoke.'' Some called it ``voodoo economics.'' Some called it a ``gimmick.'' They pointed out that Congress could later change or do away with the legislation -- if it didn't want to abide by it.
But the Democrats soon saw that Reagan was now positioned to tell the others that he and the Republicans were on the record as backing legislation that would end the big deficit. Thus, they decided they too must come up with an alternative bill aimed at balancing the budget -- lest they be perceived by the public as having opposed efforts directed at staunching the flow of red ink.
It continues to be an interesting, even fascinating, duel to watch. But, whatever the shape of the outcome, the Republicans -- and the President -- have clearly won a political victory here.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.