Roosting Chickens

PUBLIC-OPINION polls, which everyone in Washington is watching closely these days, say that Americans are disgusted over the budget gridlock in Washington and blame politicians of both parties.

With all due respect, if voters want to find someone to blame for the mess, they might start by looking in the mirror. Who, after all, keeps sending to Washington presidents of one party and legislatures of the other?

This is the fifth shutdown of the federal government since 1980. In that time, voters have elected a conservative Republican president (Ronald Reagan) and a liberal Democratic Congress; a less-conservative Republican president (George Bush) and a liberal Democratic Congress; and a Democrat (Bill Clinton) of some stripe - few observers are yet sure which - and a conservative Republican Congress. If that isn't a recipe for repeated government gridlock, what is?

The Founding Fathers, who didn't foresee political parties, created a complicated system of checks and balances that is supposed to make it difficult to effect radical change without a broad consensus. The Republican budget agenda is certainly radical. But broad consensus is hard to get when the executive and legislative branches are controlled by politicians of such different political philosophies. Voters complaining that nothing ever gets done in Washington should think more deeply in the future about the effects of their ticket-splitting.

What we've got here, as the man said, is a failure to communicate.

President Clinton for months now has been going out of his way not to talk to the congressional Republican leadership. Things have been so bad that Senator Dole recently joked that he and Speaker Gingrich would have to wear name tags at a White House meeting so the president would know who they were. It seems that during the 25 hours the men spent together on Air Force One, traveling to and from the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Clinton could have found time for a substantive meeting.

The president has apparently decided he's not going to approve any plan to keep the government open that ties his hands in future budget battles. Fair enough: He has the right to wield the veto and if the Republicans can't override it, he wins. (At press time, it appeared he was preparing to reopen offices that handle Medicare, Social Security, and veterans' benefits and claims.)

But the president's refusal even to commit to balancing the budget in seven years is astounding. It is beginning to look as though he does not intend to balance it at all. In his speeches over the last three years, he has mentioned figures of anywhere from seven years to 10. But he has never submitted a detailed proposal for doing so, and the figures the White House is using to argue that the budget can be balanced without the drastic cuts the Republicans propose are vague at best. (Congress's figures present problems, too.) Some argue that seven years is an arbitrary figure, but is 10 years any less so?

The president's latest tack, to imply that you can balance the budget without cutting entitlements, is disingenuous at best and demagogic at worst. The growth of entitlement spending - on welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, and yes, Social Security - is going to eat up the entire budget over the next two decades if it isn't stopped. It's easy to run around promising every interest group no cuts, but it's not very responsible.

That's not to let Gingrich and the 73 House GOP freshmen off the hook. They are all engaged in a contest to see who can compromise the least. It's a cliche, but politics is the art of compromise. If you're not going to bend a little in a country as large and diverse as the United States, you're not going to get much done. As long as the Republicans can't override the president's veto, they're going to have to take his concerns into account. Like it or not, that's the way the system is supposed to work.

The Republicans have played right into the Democrats' class-warfare campaign by trying to do too much too soon. The important thing is to balance the budget. Major tax cuts can come later - once it is demonstrated that the country can afford them. Attempting to gut popular environmental legislation, passing questionable anti-abortion bills, eliminating needed training and education programs, and cutting projected Medicare spending more than necessary have nothing to do with balancing the budget, and the public knows it.

We've said here before that compromise on most of the budget bills will have to be along the lines of more-moderate Senate versions of budget legislation. It's time the president and House Republicans accepted that and got on with it.

Both sides may think they can drag this out for the next several months. They will pay a heavy electoral price for doing so. In the meantime, voters should pay close attention to each party's position. And if they re-elect both this president and this Congress, all we'll be able to say is: Stop complaining.

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