Budget pact needed now Impasse unacceptable: Officials should do their job, not pass burden to voters.

January 11, 1996

ONE OF THE WORST ideas to come out of Washington these days is the notion that voters in November rather than elected officials in January should decide whether to balance the budget, Republican-style, or safeguard Medicare and other social welfare programs, Democratic-style.

Perhaps such chatter is merely for negotiating purposes in advance of a budget agreement. But it is taken seriously enough to spook financial markets, perplex the nation's governors and force a reexamination of what this government is all about.

In textbook terms that have proven their value over the years, it needs to be emphasized that this is a representative government. Town meetings may be fine for a Vermont village, not for a huge continental modern state. We elect representatives and executives on every level who have the responsibility to make the laws and enforce them. Referendums on specific issues may have their uses, but the best referendum is an election to choose those who should make decisions across-the-board.

Americans did not elect the present Congress in November 1993 merely to frame a big ideological debate for voters to judge two years later after the attack-ad artists have reduced everything to 30-second sound bites. They elected a Republican majority determined to make real progress toward a balanced budget as Democrats girded to defend their social welfare priorities. Contrary to the opinion of doctrinaire conservatives and liberals, however, this was not a mandate for ideological purity leading to gridlock. It was a mandate for the kind of accommodation on which a government of divided powers is predicated.

Wall Street was not naive in anticipating a budget agreement that sent stock prices soaring at the New Year. Governors were not living in a never-never world when they shaped state budget options in expectation of action in Washington. All parts of the electorate had reason to believe any shutdown in government operations would be short-lived and hardly a threat to the nation's full faith and credit.

So it is no wonder that the adverse reactions are coming in after 50 hours of White House negotiations at the highest level failed -- so far -- to produce an agreement.

This must not be the end of it. Partisan zealots in both parties must not be allowed to settle for mere continuing resolutions keeping present programs in place at reduced levels until a supposed great decision is made by voters next November. Such uncertainty would be an inexcusable plague upon the country. Those now in high office were elected to do a job, and they should be held accountable if they fail.

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