Government by moratorium is not government

The structural nature of the annual $200 billion federal budget deficit demands immediate action by Congress. Economic recovery alone cannot solve this problem. Although most senators agree that a combination of spending cuts and tax increases is required, it has taken us months to arrive at a deficit reduction plan acceptable to both the House and Senate. Since the beginning of April, we have spent endless hours debating various proposals.

During the months spent in debate, the prime rate has risen to 13 percent, adding more than $30 billion to the Congressional Budget Office's forecast of net interest costs. And yet the final deficit reduction package is generally conceived to be too little, too late.

I would like to suggest that this experience reflects a structural problem with Congress - that is its inability to make controversial decisions unless and until faced with a palpable political crisis of enormous proportions. Our systemic inability to tackle tough issues has all but stymied real economic reform and stifled progressive public policy initiatives in areas as diverse as environmental control of acid rain and the creation of a new federal bankruptcy court system.

As creative politicians, we have developed a new way to tackle difficult issues. We decide not to decide, but to delay. Ironically, but not surprisingly, many of our constituents strongly support this ''nondecision'' decision-making process. It affords both of us the luxury of indulging in the orthodoxy: ban, restrict, limit, freeze, delay - and think about it tomorrow!

This mentality is a bipartisan phenomenon. It cuts across party lines, ideological tenets, and philosophical inclinations. And it is actively pursued by both Congress and the administration.

The recent attempts to deal with credit card surcharges, nonbank bank acquisitions, and corporate mergers provide three examples of public policy that verge on ''moratorium morbidity.''

This spring, the moratorium restricting merchants from charging more for credit purchases expired. A major move arose in the Senate to impose a permanent ban on what had become known as credit card surcharges. Although the permanent ban failed the first vote, American Express has been instrumental in creating a constituent lobby for the ban, and there will probably be another vote on the issue before the adjournment of the 98th Congress this fall.

After Comptroller of the Currency C. T. Conover's moratorium on nonbank bank acquisitions expired in March of 1984, a six-week window of opportunity existed for entry into this potentially lucrative market while the Federal Reserve Board , the comptroller, and the Congress played chicken. Congress refused to act on the issue.

Mr. Conover first approved a number of pending applications, then imposed another moratorium lasting until the end of this session of Congress. Ample time , he felt, for Congress to work out a package for much-needed financial industry deregulation which would include a solution to the nonbank bank issue.

One of the most controversial of the more than 30 ''bans'' or ''freezes'' proposed during this session of Congress was the move to prohibit oil company mergers among the largest 50 companies for a period of a year while congressional and executive branch agencies studied the taxation, antitrust, and supply issues involved. It appeared likely to pass until major oil-state legislators agreed to a compromise position allowing the Chevron-Gulf merger to go forward while instigating a number of committee studies of the issues.

These examples illustrate the importance of the issues being ''solved'' or ''shelved'' by the ''no solution'' moratorium.

Government by moratorium is not governing. I would hope that we could recapture the traditional methods of legislative exchange - open hearings and debate - to arrive at acceptable, specific policy solutions to the increasingly difficult issues that we face both as a nation and as a world power.

Clearly, the issues of nuclear nonproliferation, corporate mergers, financial deregulation, environmental safeguards, and agricultural financing deserve both serious congressional study and definitive congressional action. Both the issues and the American public deserve more from government than sleight-of-hand procrastination.

We must begin today to deal with the issues before us and arrive at concrete policies for action. We can no longer afford the luxury of placing legislation ''on hold.''

As a start, therefore, I am today proposing a moratorium on moratoriums!

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