Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas notes that the fiscal 1986 budget dispute could be settled in a half hour, if the right people in Washington sat down together and made the few decisions that had to be made. The public probably agrees with Mr. Dole that Washington overagonizes and overstrategizes the budget process. It sees, instead, a half-hour job stretching into its fifth month. President Reagan sent down his first budget draft back in January.
Politics is largely about leadership. Or better, listening and leadership. And if Washington -- Congress and the White House -- does not want to offend voters with another display of wallowing in the slough of budget inaction, it should quickly finish the job of fashioning a budget.
Rep. William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania, the Democrat who heads the House Budget Committee, had played a waiting game in recent weeks while the Dole-led Senate struggled to bring the White House and its membership into line on a Republican budget proposal. Mr. Gray has definitely been holding his own as a new parliamentary leader and as a spokesman for the House majority on the budget. He has impressed colleagues on the committee. He has been forceful and articulate, with a sense of humor, on public occasions.
Mr. Gray's strategy of waiting for the Republicans to act in the Senate might not have been the best one. Gray's argument -- that it is up to the Republicans, who control the Senate and White House, to meet their leadership responsibility -- has its appeal. The President's slippage in the polls since January, as farmers and seniors have registered unease over his programs and reports of Pentagon profligacy have undercut support for his defense buildup, would appear to reinforce Gray's approach. Mr. Gray is trying to put the onus for a tax hike, which may yet be needed to meet the $50 billion deficit-reduction goal, on the administration. He might have sacrificed in the process, however, the opportunity for a distinctly Democratic alternative. One candidate was the minimum corporate tax. The administration any day now is expected to include such a hike in its tax reform package.
Gray's committee will likely propose cuts in social programs, in many cases by one-third or more. But it will not eliminate them as the Reagan administration had wanted. Gray, a former church-history professor and a Baptist minister in Philadelphia, may be politically well suited for making those cuts stick.
Another Democrat, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, will also soon be heard on the issue of tax reform. Mr. Rostenkowski may be more roughhewn as a spokesman, but his years in Chicago politics have made him adept at negotiation. Whatever tax-reform bill finally emerges, it will likely have Ronald Reagan's name on it, just as the President will ultimately claim the right to endorse whatever budget gets written. At most, Mr. Rostenkowski can keep tax reform a bipartisan achievement.
The Democrats sense that the Reagan administration has to be allowed to find, in the political marketplace, the current worth of its mandate. The public still, however, would prefer a half hour of budget writing to the perils-of-Pauline budget serials Washington has fallen into.