Pain, promise in the capital Newswatch ...on politics today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

October 02, 1990|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON DTC — WASHINGTON -- The howls of outrage from right and left are the clearest evidence imaginable that the budget agreement between the White House and congressional leaders is both a genuine compromise and an attack on the deficit problem that is more than gimmicks that nibble around the edges. The fate of the compromise in Congress now represents a significant test of the political system.

It may be argued that there are serious flaws in the package. A strong case can be made that the defense budget could be cut more deeply than it provides. It remains hard to defend a system of income tax rates that tax the successful at 33 percent and the truly affluent at 28 percent. The increases in excise taxes are inherently regressive.

The package alone will not solve the deficit problem. Nor will it prevent a recession.

But the operative point is that the negotiators behaved as serious people on both sides. Anyone who has examined the deficit problem as it has grown in severity over the past five years has recognized that any solution, even a partial one, would involve real pain for some taxpayers and beneficiaries of social services. This one involves real pain, not just accounting gimmicks and one-time devices.

The climate in which Congress now must address the compromise is politically difficult. An election is little more than a month away, so incumbents have a totally understandable fear that their challengers will attack them on such things as the 12-cent increase in gasoline taxes and reductions in Medicare benefits accompanied by increases in Medicare taxes.

But the context in which the decisions will be made also is colored by the pervasive suspicion in the electorate that the politicians are both unresponsive and incapable of confronting serious problems in a serious way. That suspicion is the underlying basis of the strong sentiment among the voters for limitations on the number of terms state legislators and congressmen can serve. So the critical question is whether Congress can afford not to approve the package or some reasonable facsimile of it in the next three weeks.

The political equities at this point are a mixed bag. For President Bush, there is some obvious value in being seen as a leader willing to confront the most complex issue on the national agenda. On the other hand, the president has been obliged to renege on his promise of "no new taxes" and to abandon his insistence on reductions in capital gains taxes. His willingness to cling to the capital gains idea until the bitter end clearly helps reinforce the picture of his administration and the Republican Party nourishing an inordinate concern about the rich.

But the Democrats have been forced to yield, as well, on a basic element of their original plan -- some change in the income tax rates to make them more progressive. They are particularly vulnerable because they have accepted higher taxes on beer and gasoline -- along with more modest cuts in defense spending than most of them originally demanded.

Depending on how the issue plays out on Capitol Hill, the agreement may take the deficit issue effectively out of the 1990 campaign in the sense that President Bush should be precluded from attacks on the Democratic congressional leadership on the spending question while the Democrats are similarly precluded from stinging him on the tax issue. He has swallowed some taxes; they have swallowed some real spending cuts.

But the task for both Bush and the Democratic leaders is still formidable. The president has to deliver half the Republicans in both houses of Congress as his part of the agreement, and that may be difficult in the House, where the minority whip, Rep. Newt Gingrich, is not above playing dog in the manger. The Democrats may have a similar problem with both House members and Senators on the far left of the party, particularly on the Medicare plan. And there will be regional reactions that cross party lines -- for example, protests from Western delegations that the gasoline tax increases are particularly burdensome to those who must routinely drive much longer distances than are required in the Northeast.

The bottom line, then, is that the compromise is only a first step in what promises to be an awkward negotiation to pass legislation to accomplish its purposes. But it is also an opportunity for the incumbents in Congress to demonstrate that, contrary to the popular opinion at the moment, they are capable of doing their jobs.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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