SINCE they were going to recess for the Independence Day holiday anyway, and they weren't getting anywhere in resolving their standoff on social security and defense, the House and Senate budget conferees declared an ``impasse.'' An impasse, in Washington parlance, is a ``timeout,'' not an ``I quit.'' It's like saying, ``I'm taking my bat and glove home if you guys aren't going to play fair'' -- or trying to hold on to some competitive edge until the game resumes. The stakes of course are more serious than summertime baseball. But politics isn't always that much more psychologically sophisticated than neighborhood sports.
The House budgeteers, going home this weekend to their districts, would not have wanted to explain to senior voters why they had caved in on the social security cost-of-living increases (COLAs) the House Democrats had said they would protect. Senate budget conferees, finding no movement among the House bargainers in the budget conference, would have had to yield on the inflation-adjustment increase for defense spending. Before a recess, with a crisis brewing in the Middle East over the hostage seizure, the Senate budgeteers found it prudent to declare an impasse and get off the field.
But if the politics of the moment call for a timeout, the eventual politics of the federal budget deficits -- in the $175 billion-to-$200 billion range into the 1990s -- demand a compromise agreement. The two chambers propose similar-size deficit reduction packages of $56 billion for next year. The House trims are spread more across the board, the Senate's cut more deeply into social spending. In case of an economic downturn, this difference could have a severe effect on those dependent on the government safety net.
We could support an accord at the lower numbers, that is, a freeze at current levels for both social security and defense. Given the onset of next year's election cycle, however, the more likely compromise could come in the form of a three-month deferment of the cost-of-living adjustment for senior pensions and a somewhat larger give on growth in defense spending.
If the House Democrats are grandstanding on the social security issue, it is only fair to point out the other side's gamesmanship at this point of the season. Tax reform as pushed by the Reagan administration is a convenient diversion from the deficit.
Voters will want to talk about the hostage crisis, not budgets and taxes, this July Fourth break. But as the legislative calendar resumes, neither side can afford, politically, to quit before a compromise is reached on deficit reduction. The public will not buy blaming the other chamber for taking its glove home and refusing to play.