Political and governmental crisis in...


October 10, 1990|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

IN TIMES OF political and governmental crisis in Washington, such as the current one over the federal budget, I turn to the press there for guidance. It's their town, it's a local story.

I found a Post story by Thomas B. Edsall. Headline: "Political Gridlock: A Symptom of Deeper National Problems?" National problems? It's our fault? Not the House, not the Senate, not the president, but us out here in Transcapitalbeltwaylandia?

Yep. Robert Samuelson explained it on the Post's op-ed page: "The deficits have endured because they reflect a solid and stable political consensus: Americans desire more government than they are willing to support with taxes."

No! It is exactly the reverse. Americans desire less government. Read our lips. Interest groups desire more, but people desire less. Politicians carry water for the former and ignore the latter. Many journalists, too. If Walt Kelly were alive today and writing from Washington, Pogo would say, "We have met the enemy, and it is the people."

Look, it's very simple. We have deficits because officials in Washington screw up year after year after year. They don't know how to be legislators. They can't handle budgets. States handle this sort of thing routinely. So do families.

This deficit crisis didn't just spring up full grown. Congress is supposed to pass 13 appropriations bills before the beginning of the fiscal year, and the president is supposed to sign them before that deadline. Without this simple procedural discipline, matching income to expenditures is difficult.

It hasn't happened since I started watching in 1961. Once they came close. At 11:59 p.m. Sept. 30, 1988, the last appropriations bill was enacted when the Senate approved the House version in advance, sight unseen. This was delivered to the White House close enough to midnight to be considered a symbolic victory if President Reagan had signed it then, but he was asleep.

The worst ineptitude was in 1987, when, unable to enact any appropriations bills by the deadline or for the next three months, Congress passed a single "continuing resolution" as a substitute for all 13 bills. No one who voted for it or the president who signed it knew what was in it. Some couldn't even pick it up. It weighed 30 pounds.

This year? This crisis year? This year when all agreed to do it right? No appropriations bill has passed. Not one. This is a joke. I say to the Washington press corps, don't blame us out here for it.

H. L. Mencken was asked once why he continued to cover national politics and government, since he obviously had a very low opinion of its practitioners. He answered, "Why do men go to zoos?"

I thought of that last weekend. Tourists were turned away from the National Zoo. It was closed because of the budget fiasco. Some of those tourists then went to the visitors' galleries at the Capitol -- and booed.

Saturday: Why we keep re-electing these animals.

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