WASHINGTON -- Imagine an America where a million children are unprotected from the ravages of rubella, measles, polio and mumps; where store shelves are bare because meat and poultry processing plants are shuttered; where airplanes are grounded at night because the federal government can't afford nocturnal weather forecasts.
Imagine America after the budget-cutting ax of the Gramm-Rudman law has sliced about $105 billion out of the federal government's annual allowance, reducing funding to hundreds of programs by about one-third.
If Congress and the White House eventually come up with a deficit-denting budget deal, that grim scenario will remain the stuff of imagination. But as key lawmakers and top administration officials continue to haggle in their 5-month-old talks, the havoc threatened by Gramm-Rudman becomes more imminent by the day.
"This country could not afford that -- no way, no way," said Representative Silvio O. Conte, R-Mass., a member of the budget negotiating team.
"It would be a disaster," agreed Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine.
Though Republicans and Democrats alike agree that the automatic budget cuts ought to be avoided, they have yet to agree on how to best avoid them.
About $85 billion worth of arbitrary cuts are supposed to be imposed Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, if a budget agreement hasn't materialized. After Oct. 15, the cuts are expected to deepen to $105 billion out of the federal government's $1.2 trillion budget. But the Bush administration and many congressional Republicans have vowed to let the reductions take effect if negotiators fail to reach a compromise and to leave them in place until a deal is struck.
Negotiators are searching for a plan to trim the federal deficit by $50 billion in fiscal 1991 and by an additional $450 billion during the following four years. Yesterday, talks remained deadlocked over the issue of taxes, amid conflicting reports of progress.
Democrats, meanwhile, took the first step in the plan to delay the automatic spending reductions by 20 days, brushing aside a veto threat by President Bush and backing a bill that would enable the government to continue spending at essentially its present rate until Oct. 20.
The legislation was approved by the House Appropriations Committee on a nearly party-line 32-20 vote but ran into immediate opposition from the White House.
"If there is no budget agreement with real spending reductions and real process reform by the end of the week, I will have to veto it," said an obviously annoyed Mr. Bush.
"I do not want to see further delay in kicking this problem on down the road."
Without a budget deal, the effects of Washington's fiscal stalemate seem likely to be felt immediately and by almost everyone.
The automatic budget cuts would pare the defense budget by more than 35 percent and chop thousands of domestic programs by more than 32 percent. Under Gramm-Rudman's arbitrary regime, tens of thousands of federal workers would find themselves temporarily without jobs or on sharply truncated work -- and pay -- schedules.
Such furloughs would extend to almost every federal activity, with enormous ramifications.
Across-the-board cuts would virtually eliminate the meat and poultry inspection programs run by the Department of Agriculture for much of the year. Since federal inspectors are required by law to examine the carcasses of food animals, the House Appropriations Committee estimates that USDA furloughs would shut down the nation's meat and poultry processing plants for 140 days, throwing the industry into a recession.
Similarly, cutbacks would affect the nation's air transport infrastructure. More than 100 air traffic control towers would be closed or would have their hours curtailed. Beginning Monday, 250 weather stations are scheduled to be closed from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., depriving pilots of weather reports and thereby eliminating commercial air service during those hours. An estimated 6,000 flights a day would be canceled.
The government's medical service programs -- such as those offered by Medicare and the Department of Veterans Affairs -- are shielded from all but a 2 percent cut. Nevertheless, the nation's veterans hospitals would be forced to cut back significantly on the number of patients they treat, and would see their overall budget of $12.2 billion trimmed by nearly $875 million, according to agency figures.
And many health services to the public -- including vaccinations for approximately 1 million children who would not be protected against a variety of deadly viruses -- would be curtailed.
America might not only be a less healthy place under Gramm-Rudman, but perhaps a more dangerous one as well. Federal prosecutors would be forced to abandon 25 percent of all their outstanding criminal cases, and organized crime investigations would be cut by 20 percent.