WILLIAM Butler Yeats was a poet, not a politician, but no words better capture the present budget standoff in the United States than the lines he wrote in 1921:
"Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
"Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."
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. The subsequent desperate machinations of the centrists certainly resembled anarchy on the loose. Whether they can regain control is an open question.
Such a debacle could never happen in a parliamentary democracy like those of Europe, but we don't have a parliamentary system. For better or worse, we have a system of separation of powers designed to prevent anyone from doing too much; the problem is, it can prevent anyone from doing anything.
What makes this crisis particularly anarchic was the role playe by the bully-of-the-block congressman from Georgia, Newt Gingrich. After sitting at the negotiating table for four months in fashioning the budget compromise, Gingrich didn't like the result, so he kicked over the table.
But the fact remains that the conservative Gingrich could not have worked his mischief if he had not gained the unholy alliance with the liberals. In short, the extremes ganged up to murder the center, so now we have only the extremes left.
So if the centrists were unable to construct an acceptable compromise within our divided political framework, will the extremists do any better? Could Gingrich and, let us say, liberal Sen. Ted 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. Here's how it could work:
The Kennedy group would adopt a plan markedly different from the rejected compromise. This plan undoubtedly would include far lower consumer taxes on such items as gasoline and heating oil. It would include significantly higher marginal income tax rates for the wealthy, who might be mollified by a slightly reduced 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 commensurate increase in the marginal tax rates for the wealthy. The revenue shortfall of a Gingrich no-new-taxes package would thus require draconian cuts somewhere, but not in defense spending. Interest payments on the national debt -- now consuming close to a quarter of the national revenues -- could not be cut. "Entitlements" might be cut some, but not even the most stalwart conservative can stand up to the sort of political vengeance the elderly can deliver when they perceive a threat to Social Security. This leaves virtually all of the Gingrich budget cuts to come out of non-defense discretionary spending, which constitutes only 16 percent of the national budget. Farm subsidies, AMTRAK subsidies, law enforcement, transportation projects, 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 necessarily be partisan. One could easily see a Republican like Jim Leach of Iowa, for example, supporting the Kennedy budget. Likewise, one could see a Southern conservative Democrat like Georgia's Edgar Jenkins supporting 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?