Budget amendment action speaks louder than details


WASHINGTON -- The budget argument between Republican and Democratic leaders on weekend television reminds us of the old vaudeville gag: A wife comes home and finds her husband in bed with another woman. He tells her she is mistaken. "Who are you going to believe," he asks, "me or your own eyes?"

The Democratic minority leaders, Sen. Tom Daschle and Rep. Dick Gephardt, in effect told House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott that they are going to believe their own eyes when it comes to demanding to know what cuts the Republicans will make to balance the budget.

Armey and Lott have taken the position that the Republican-controlled Congress will be able to achieve that feat by 2002 if the constitutional amendment their party advocates is enacted, but that they can't specify the cuts now.

Armey, in an earlier impolitic comment, remarked that if the Republicans did so, it would be "virtually impossible" to pass the amendment -- precisely why the Democrats want the cuts spelled out. They know that details would bring out all manner of special interests assaulting the amendment, just as details of President Clinton's health care reforms provided the ammunition for their rejection.

On NBC News' "Meet the Press," Armey said that specifying the cuts would kill the amendment "because the fact of the matter is once members of Congress know exactly, chapter and verse, the pain that the government must live with in order to get to a balanced budget, their knees will buckle."

The Democrats tried without success to get the voters' knees to buckle in the midterm election by charging that the Republican-proposed balanced budget amendment would mean deep cuts in Social Security, Medicare, education and a host of other programs that have wide public support.

The voters clearly weren't interested in the fine print. They wanted a more fiscally disciplined Congress and said so emphatically with their ballots, believing the Republicans' pledge produce it.

The Democrats' failure on Nov. 8 is not stopping them from continuing to insist that the Republicans reveal whose ox will be gored in their proposals to balance the budget. But recent political history has demonstrated that details are not as important as promises if they are pledged with the personal credibility to sustain them -- even if those promises later are not fulfilled.

When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, he promised to cut taxes, increase defense spending and balance the budget.

Critics, including George Bush, who memorably called the Reagan agenda "voodoo economics," said it couldn't be done.

Ronald Reagan achieved the first two, but sent the budget deficit through the roof.

Later, he was obliged to increase taxes of one kind or another several times -- while always insisting he was dead-set against doing so.

None of this hurt Reagan politically in the long run because he remained steadfast in his rhetoric if not in his actions, and the voters liked him enough to accept what he said regardless of what he did.

As Dr. Feelgood, his bedside manner carried the day even as he administered an economic placebo to cure the deficit.

But when Bush took over the White House after having instructed voters to "read my lips: No new taxes," and then broke that pledge, all political hell broke around him within his own party.

He continued to talk conservative, but the action confirmed for conservatives who never cared for him in the first place that he really never was one of them.

The Republicans in their first days in control of Congress have been criticized by the Democrats for relying excessively on promises and on symbolic acts to demonstrate their resolve to change business as usual on Capitol Hill.

In the greater scheme of things, such actions as cutting staff and committees may not be all that significant, but they do send the signal that voters said on Nov. 8 they wanted.

A balanced budget amendment is another such symbol, and for that reason the Democrats are likely to find that insisting on the details of the cuts necessary to achieve a balanced budget will be as politically unproductive for them as it was in trying to stem the Republican tide last fall.

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