Washington — Can America's system of divided government control inflation? The current budget battle may provide a classic test. President Reagan hopes soon to appeal to the nation by television to support his economic program. Congress is split on his budget and tax proposals, especially in the House of Representatives. Reagan advisers say the President may veto a tax measure that provides anything less than the 10 percent a year for three years he has proposed.
Most observers reject the possibility of deadlock here, but they ask increasingly if power in Washington isn't so diffused that nobody can win. Who's in charge anyway?
Rep. Richard Bolling (D) of Missouri, chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, tells reporters that Democrats favor their own anti-inflation program -- one that will go easier on the poor -- and that they won't accept the three-year tax cut program.
"People feel the government is out of control," says Mr. Bolling. "It desperately needs reorganization."
The Reagan program faces a difficulty unique to the American system: It is drawn up by one branch of government (the executive) and submitted to another (the legislative); and the legislative branch now is split, with Democrats the majority in the House, Republicans the Senate.
Historian Lloyd Cutler notes that "we are the only country where the legislature can vote a higher budget than the executive proposes." Political scientists wondery if any other country could function under this system.
Congress had no formal budget apparatus at all until 1974, when Bolling helped install machinery to reconcile proposed expenditures with income. Before that the House and Senate "flew blind" on the budget, adding to huge deficits. It is not certain whether this budget process, hailed as a major reform, can survive a prolonged stalemate over the present budget.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) declares in a survey that at least 8 million families will lose income if the Reagan program passes. Many families losing income are already below the poverty line, the report says; specifically, about 51.2 percent of the 16.5 million families under or close to the poverty line would be hurt, it asserts.
Politicians agree the survey indicates the present budget struggle is one of the biggest political-economic debates in modern times.
But White House assistant press secretary Larry Speakes minimized the new CBO report. The administration takes the position that the "truly needy," defined by officials as those who cannot survive without government help, will not be hurt.
Two years ago Congressman Bolling declared, "Government is in a state of chaos today," citing diffusion of responsibility and the presence of competing pressure groups and bureaucracies. He urged establishment of an 18-member "commission on more effective government" similar to the Hoover Commission of 1947. He indicated that ex-President Gerald Ford might head it. Since then Jimmy Carter has joined the list of ex-presidents available for a high-level, non-partisan study commission.
"Unless we clear up this confusion, the democratic process is going to be lost," Bolling said a year ago.
But Congress did not establish the commission, and today Bolling says:
"I think it's absolutely predictable that something dreadful is going to happen unless we change."
Apparent voter apathy gives urgency to his warning: only 52 percent voted in 1980, the lowest in years, indicating a "what's the use" attitude.
While the Rules Committee chairman buffets opponents in the partisan battle over the budget he is aware of an even deeper threat: a democracy that doesn't work.