Political IOUs overshadow Reagan's budget triumph
The Reagan administration has won a stunning House budget fight but at a cost that is not yet calculated. To achieve the crucial 217-to-211 vote President Reagan made promises that remain to be collected in one of the most remarkable executive-legislative confrontations of the century. Big questions are left unresolved:
Has President Reagan cleared the way for a balanced budget in 1984?
Have Republican and Southern Democratic conservatives achieved control in the 97th Congress? Is their unity temporary or permanent?
Is the executive now dominant over the legislative branch in a restoration of presidential power that lapsed after Watergate?
What will be the social consequences of the prospective budgets cuts in Great Society programs originally introduced during the Johnson administration to aid lower income people?
The legislative struggle now turns to the second part of the comprehensive Reagan economic program: reconciliation of rival Senate and House tax cuts. The Reagan goal is a 25 percent three-year cut with emphasis on middle and upper brackets. The House version gives somewhat greater benefits to income under $50 ,000.
The legislative drama on the budget, June 26, turned on Mr. Reagan's successful effort to win over a critical handful of 29 conservative House Democrats, many of whom the President lobbied by telephone from California, with indications of political IOUs yet to be clarified.
So hurriedly was the final compromise budget put together that the 800-page document, involving $35 billion in cuts, had no index, no table of contents, no consecutive page numbers, and final amendments scribbled in. Members did not get it until after debate had started. The budget affected an estimated 250 federal programs.
The outmaneuvered Democrats tried to get six separate votes on individual budget slashes, while the successful Republicans offered a single package that emphasized the overall money-saving goal without highlighting the individual welfare and poverty programs being trimmed. The Democratic plan to split the votes was defeated, 217 to 210.
Both sides hailed the results as historic.
In California in a written statement Mr. Reagan called the vote "a profile in political courage. . . . It will renew the faith of millions of Americans who have waited so long just for those in washington to listen and care and take action."
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts harshly responded:
"The program is a hidden agenda for the wealthy, a deliberate effort to transfer wealth from the struggling families of this country and to award that wealth to those who are already wealthy."
It is generally agreed here that the immense budget trimming program contains "sleepers" and that so far nobody is certain of all its details. Normally Congress goes through a far slower and much more careful item-by-item scrutiny. The new procedure initiated by Republican strategists reduces power of individual committees and ultimately increases executive power. It also speeds matters enormously.
Whether the new procedure is here to stay is anybody's guess. It uses a previously little-noticed technical device that has made the word "reconciliation" suddenly familiar all over Washington. This requires action from individual committees whose target total is then reconciled by the budget committee.
What did President Reagan promise the conservative Democrats who switched to his side?
Hitherto the administration has opposed sugar price supports. These keep prices paid to domestic producers above the world price, and cost American families extra money at the breakfast table. By rule of thumb a penny increase in the price of sugar costs America consumers collectively $300 million. Rep. John B. Breaux (D) of Louisiana, indicated the administration has promised a "deal" on sugar. Rep. W. J. Tauzin (D) of Lousiana was more specific. He was one of those to whom Mr. Reagan talked over the phone. The President promised to support his pet project, sugar price supports, Mr. Tauzin said. In California White House press spokesman Larry Speakes said, "compromise is part of the political pr ocess."