Best deal -- for now
WE would still have preferred a broad freeze on federal spending for fiscal 1986 -- including skipping inflation increases for defense and social security -- or else some revenue increases. So we have to join in the general sigh of resignation over Congress's $55.5 billion trim from anticipated spending for the next fiscal year, which begins in October. Even at $55.5 billion, the deficit would still be $172 billion next year -- building toward a total debt of $2.5 trillion by the end of President Reagan's second term. The congressional numbers on savings are targets that must be met in future appropriations legislation. And they are ``soft,'' because based on too-optimistic assumptions abo ut the economy and Congress's own willingness to contain spending on programs like farm aid, actual savings could turn out to be in the $30 billion range.
Politically the congressional budget pact makes a statement: It confirms that a long plateau has been reached in the assault on federal spending, a plateau from which only a slow and painstaking descent now looks likely. The Democrat-led House has successfully dug in against eliminating popular programs from Appalachian regional aid to Amtrak; it has held off on efforts to tamper with social security payments through the next election. However, it has endorsed greater defense spending, protecting its flank particularly among Southern and conservative voters for the next election. Through the months of negotiations, the House simply appeared less intimidated by the White House than was the case earlier in the Reagan administration.
The Senate was clearly the more frustrated body. It had hoped to enlist the President's support for an oil import levy and a delay in social security inflation benefits. When the White House rejected its budget compromise offer, the Senate had no choice but to join House budget conferees in initialing the deficit pact as the August recess loomed. The Senate Republican leadership felt frustrated because the White House, which should have been their trump negotiating card, left them to go it alone a gainst the House.
Whatever actually happened in Washington on the deficit in recent days and weeks, the public will still likely blame Congress's past actions more than President Reagan for the deficit. To the public, the deficit looks like the sum of the past imprudent decisions more than a failure of midsummer '85 resolve. The White House knows this. After having earlier made a feint toward accepting a delay in social security increases, it pulled back to the President's 1984 campaign position, most notably in opposin g tax increases.
The President, however, is going to have to advance from last year's position if he wants to maintain his record as an effective leader in Washington. He needs his Republican support in Congress. His first year in Washington was notable for the nearly unanimous GOP votes he got on key bills. Last week Republicans in the House joined Democrats to deliver by a 3-to-1 margin a sharp rebuff to Mr. Reagan's South African policy of ``constructive engagement,'' by voting for sanctions against the South African
government. Only a threatened filibuster saved the President from a similar rebuff in the Senate.
The government now plans to spend $968 billion in 1986 and to take in $794 billion in revenue. That's an 18 percent shortfall in revenue. If followed fully, the congressional compromise would lower the yearly federal deficit's share of the gross national product from some 5 percent toward 3 percent -- not something to dismiss. Still, spending five dollars for every four dollars taken in hardly looks like responsible budgeting.
The budget compromise shows Washington has squeezed the turnip of federal spending about as much as it could have been squeezed at this time. If there is a tax reform measure, an import tax fee could still conceivably be tacked on to it. But more likely it defers the major issues of tax hikes, defense spending, and social security until next year and a new political cycle.