IS Gramm-Rudman the best Congress can offer this country? Returning from a couple of weeks' vacation where I did not have daily access to English-language papers, it was surprising to find so much discussion centered on a piece of legislation that I had earlier dismissed as trivial, certainly not worthy of becoming law.
Gramm-Rudman attempts to solve a problem that Congress and the President together have been unable or unwilling to solve: the ballooning federal debt, which has roughly doubled since Mr. Reagan became President and Congress enacted the three-year tax cut in 1981.
It does so in a manner that is constitutionally questionable, and at the very least gives the president powers that Congress has been unwilling to grant in the past. That is, if Congress itself cannot agree on the ways to cut the deficit by the agreed-upon targets for the next five years, the president will have the authority to do so by making budget cuts.
Roughly half the budget, however, will be exempted from this authority -- social security, interest on the national debt, and at least some of the long-term Defense Department contracts.
One is tempted to offer at least faint praise on Gramm-Rudman by saying that, if this is the best Congress can do, it's at least a start on a very tough issue and a step likely to lead us to fiscal balance five years down the road.
That really doesn't seem likely, however. To achieve the reductions that would have to be made each year, with only half the budget to work with, would cut deeply into programs Congress has been unwilling to touch. Then, let us suppose Congress realizes this and goes to the president with a tax increase. The president, wanting to cut spending further than Congress has done, could veto the tax increase.
If Congress could not override the veto, the president would then proceed to make deep cuts in the budget to get to the targeted deficit. Is Congress really so impotent in its decisionmaking power that it is willing to grant this much authority to Mr. Reagan and his successor in 1989?
As important as it is to get the federal budget balanced, to do so in a mindless way -- to cut into domestic programs, for instance, that Congress and the people want to preserve intact -- would be irresponsible. Yet, Gramm-Rudman would make this possible.
There are supposed to be guarantees built into the bill to allow flexibility in time of recession. And judging from past business cycles, the nation is likely to have some kind of recession in the 1986-91 period.
What should happen would be a judicious pruning of the deficit, by means of both spending cuts and tax increases, that keeps in mind the state of the economy during each budget season as the process moves through Congress. Gramm-Rudman makes it more likely that any attempt at fine-tuning the economy would be impossible.
There is, in fact, no good argument for this kind of congressional response. It is dubious on constitutional grounds. It is bad economics. It allows for budget-cutting, but at the expense of further debate on the priorities involved in a budget.
In short, it seems most like a congressional relapse from responsibility -- one which, if it becomes law, circumstances are apt to make obsolete, and which shows Congress refusing to use the decisionmaking powers for which the electorate sent it to Washington. It shows Congress willing to act, yes; but willing to act in a way that is not in line with its best traditions.