The budget fiasco

October 10, 1990|By Jim Fain BTC

WASHINGTON — ATTRIBUTING the budget fiasco to divided government is like blaming a hurricane on the tides. Having a president of one party and a Congress of another makes the mess harder to clean but did not cause it.

Ronald Reagan managed that with his supply-side pipe dream. We could buy more guns with lower taxes, he said. Growth would pick up the check.

"Voodoo economics," George Bush said until Reagan woke him spiritually with the vice presidential nomination. Then he became star apostle of the free lunch mystique, subsequently pitching his own presidential bid on a no-tax pledge both he and the

voters knew was a lie.

By then, he had spun himself into reverse so many times he was confident he could find a way to make Democrats take the political hit when he had to renege. The rest of us deserve our full share of guilt. We voted for this nonsense of our own free will. Nobody held a gun to our head.

This is all factual history, not an argument for split government. Division has its own costs. The semi-permanent GOP White House and Democratic Congress we've set up make accountability difficult and demagoguery almost irresistible.

Republican Whip Newt Gingrich's 15 minutes of TV grandstanding would have bombed in Peoria had his party controlled the House. Congressional Democrats could not have sat on their hands with a Democrat in the White House. Put a congressional majority behind Bush and how could he claim "the devil (Democrats) made me do it?"

Why, then, do we go on electing Republican presidents and Democratic congresses?

Out of philosophical devotion to political gridlock, some academics claim, which is nonsense on its face. It's just that we haven't seen the downside to division or, for that matter, the paralysis it spawns.

The best explanation I've run into came from Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News, who recalled a letter in Time magazine years ago. It said we vote for Democratic congressmen to get for us the goodies we crave. We vote for Republican presidents to veto goodies for everybody else.

That's about it, but it's clearly not working the way we planned. For the last 10 years, we've been putting everybody's goodies on the cuff. As a result, a big chunk of our taxes goes for interest on our debt.

In a parliamentary system, our recent governments would have tumbled before the end of inauguration week, to be succeeded by workable majorities that could take us in one direction or the other. Personally, I'd vote for that, but we're not about to change the Constitution. We need another plan.

Barring national catastrophe, it will have to begin with acceptance of the fact (budget summiteers to the witness stand, please) that divided government is inherently incompetent. Instead of priding ourselves on "voting for the man (woman); not the party," we ought to pledge allegiance to whichever straight ticket strikes us as better -- with rare exceptions for David Dukes.

The current budget burlesque will get settled, sort of, in a hodge-podge of compromises satisfactory to neither side, and there will be no one -- not George Bush, George Mitchell, Newt Gingrich nor John Doe -- to hold responsible. Frustrating when the only way to throw the rascals out is in the same bag with the good guys.

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