Budget impasse proves the system is working

November 16, 1995|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- At moments like this it is difficult to perform the basic rite of democracy, which involves genuflecting reverently in the direction of ''the people.''

The people, egged on by supercilious journalism, are irritated nearly to insurrection by what they consider ''childish'' behavior in the current budget impasse. The people should be sent to bed without dessert, there to have read to them not ''Green Eggs and Ham'' but ''The Federalist'' and other works on how the government is supposed to work.

It is working. We rightly revere the Constitution's subtle framers because they produced a system of checks and balances and separation of powers that can produce inaction when that is jTC appropriate. Today's paralysis is the inaction of a government accurately reflecting strong crosscurrents in the country.

It requires constitutional craftsmanship of a high order to design a government capable of the complex and, in its way, elegant outcome that today is absurdly misnamed a ''train wreck.'' The governments in Havana and Beijing never experience this. Indeed, such a standoff between rival branches of government could not happen in Paris or London, for which fact the French and British are not to be envied.

The public milk cup

For years the public has pounded its milk cup on its highchair tray, demanding ''change'' and an end to ''politics as usual.'' Now both are occurring and the public is whining, not recognizing that this is what politics looks like when the stakes are high and serious politicians take them seriously.

The president says -- the memory of man runneth not to when Democrats did not say -- that he, too, rises in the predawn stillness to pray for balanced budgets, but of course the budget must not be balanced at the expense of children, or the elderly, or the middle class, or education, or the environment, or the infrastructure, or ''the future.'' Of course.

Clearly the president does not want a balanced budget any more than he wants to ''end welfare as we know it,'' now that he has glimpsed what each is apt to involve. So he is vetoing Republican plans that would balance the budget more slowly than he as candidate promised to do (he said five years, they say seven) and he probably (it will depend on who talks to him last) will veto the Republican plan to end welfare as we know it -- as a federal entitlement.

Having sought in 1992 a mandate for an empty idea -- ''change'' -- he has come to the arguable conclusion that serious change is more trouble than it is worth. Never a martyr to candor, he will not make that argument. Still, he does represent a discernible notion of what the federal government ought to do -- approximately what it is doing.

Republicans have a significantly different notion and they say (they are not under oath) they are only doing what in 1994 they promised to do. Granted, they forgot to mention the M word (Medicare) when promising to restrain government's growth. But that does not excuse the public for thinking, as much of it does, that its demand for a balanced budget could be fulfilled by cutting only ''waste, fraud and abuse'' or (what the public sometimes considers a synonym for those three) foreign aid. The public should not complain about the nanny state while acting as though it needs one.

To govern is to choose

The public is reportedly impatient for the current impasse to end. It soon will, in the sense that passport offices will reopen. But to govern is to choose; budgets are compilations of choices; there will be another budget next year, and the year after. Hence there will be many more dust-ups, because the current healthy argument is an American constant. It concerns how much

government we want.

George Bush had not been president 15 minutes before he demonstrated his unfitness by saying in his Inaugural Address that ''the American people . . . didn't send us here to bicker.'' Actually, the people of this continental nation invariably, inevitably send here some serious people with seriously different convictions. Their duty is not to ''bicker'' -- Mr. Bush could not imagine a serious argument -- but to struggle strenuously for what they think is right.

By electing whom it has elected, and by years of demanding balanced budgets and smaller government, the public wrote today's script which so annoys the public. The script is Act I, Scene I of the 1996 presidential election, which may be as defining as the 1896 election in which sharply contrasting notions of the nation's prospects -- Bryan's and McKinley's -- were contested. By the glow of its night-light the public should be able to see that today's high-stakes argument is democracy almost dignified.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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