The frenzied activity in Washington over the federal budget is beginning to take on the ludicrous appearance of all the king's men trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But if the events of recent days are any guide, the success of the effort will be no better than that recorded in the famous nursery rhyme: The job just can't be done.
The reason: When Congress voted down the budget compromise painstakingly worked out by centrist politicians George Bush and George Mitchell, Tom Foley and Bob Michel, the center collapsed.
What makes this crisis particularly anarchic was the role played by the bully-of-the-block congressman from Georgia, Newt Gingrich. But the fact remains that the conservative Gingrich could not have worked his mischief if he had not reached an alliance with congressional liberals. In short, the extremes ganged up to murder the center; now only the extremes are left.
But if the centrists were unable to find an acceptable compromise, will the extremes do any better? Could Gingrich and, let us say, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts work out a "compromise" budget? Fat chance.
What might have a chance, however, is this: Let each side draft its own budget plan, then make the coming November elections a national plebiscite on which plan will be enacted.
A Kennedy budget undoubtedly would include far lower consumer taxes on such items as gasoline and heating oil, but significantly higher income tax rates for the wealthy, who might be mollified by a lower capital gains tax. The Kennedy package would include far greater cuts in defense, but few cuts in such social programs as Medicare.
The Gingrich plan undoubtedly would include a reduction of the capital gains tax rate to 15 percent, with no increase in the marginal tax rates for the wealthy. The revenue shortfall of a Gingrich no-new-taxes package would thus require draconian cuts, but not in defense spending. "Entitlements" might be cut some, but not even the sturdiest conservative can stand up to the political vengeance the elderly can bring to bear when they perceive a threat to Social Security. This leaves virtually all of the Gingrich budget cuts to come from non-defense discretionary spending. Farm subsidies, AMTRAK subsidies, law enforcement, transportation projects, the national parks, foreign aid -- the list could go on and on -- would be devastated by any Gingrich package which came close to balancing the budget.
For his part, President Bush would agree, in advance, to sign whichever budget was enacted by the new Congress.
Then the national election could be held with every candidate committing himself or herself, unequivocally in a written sworn statement, to one package or the other. It would not be partisan. A Republican like Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, for example, might support a Kennedy budget; a Southern conservative Democrat like Georgia's Edgar Jenkins might support the Gingrich plan.
The first order of business of the new Congress would be to enact whichever package was ratified by the voters.
What could be fairer?