Preferred Citation: White, Joseph, and Aaron Wildavsky. The Deficit and the Public Interest: The Search for Responsible Budgeting in the 1980s. Berkeley New York:  University of California Press Russell Sage Foundation,  c1989 1989.


The Deficit and the Public Interest

The Search for Responsible Budgeting in the 1980s

Joseph White and Aaron Wildavsky

Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford
© 1990 The Regents of the University of California

For Michael J. White and Daniel J. Tenenberg

Preferred Citation: White, Joseph, and Aaron Wildavsky. The Deficit and the Public Interest: The Search for Responsible Budgeting in the 1980s. Berkeley New York:  University of California Press Russell Sage Foundation,  c1989 1989.

For Michael J. White and Daniel J. Tenenberg

List of Acronyms and Abbreviations



American Association of Retired Persons


Accelerated Cost Recovery System


Aid to Families with Dependent Children


Budget Authority


Budget Reconciliation Act


Congressional Budget Office


Commodity Credit Corporation


Community Development Block Grant


Conservative Democratic Forum


Council of Economic Advisers


Comprehensive Employment and Training Act


Child Health Assurance Program


Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act


Cost of Living Adjustment


Consumer Price Index


Continuing Resolution


Civil Service Retirement


Deficit Reduction Act


Democratic National Committee


Department of Defense


Diagnosis Related Group


Democratic Study Group


Energy Assistance Program



Earned Income Tax Credit


Economic Recovery Tax Act


Fund to Assure an Independent Retirement


Federal Bureau of Investigation


Federal Insurance Contributions Act


General Accounting Office


Gross National Product




General Revenue Sharing


House Budget Committee


Health and Human Services


Hospital Insurance


House Post Office & Civil Service Committee


Industrial Development Bonds


International Monetary Fund


Individual Retirement Account


Joint Tax Committee


Low-Income Housing Energy Assistance Program


Legal Services Corporation


Maximum Deficit Amount


National Association of Manufacturers


National Economic Commission


Old Age, Survivors, Disability and Hospital Insurance


Old Age and Survivors Insurance


Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act


Office of Management and Budget


Professional Air Traffic Controllers' Organization


Program Project and Activity


Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System


Rapid Deployment Force


Small Business Administration


Senate Budget Committee


Strategic Defense Initiative


Supplemental Security Income



Tax Equity & Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982


Tax Reform Action Coalition


Urban Development Action Grants


Urban Mass Transportation Administration


Women and Infant Children Nutrition Program


The Era of the Budget

Political time is counted not in years but in issues; a political era is defined by the concerns that dominate debate and action, so that about other issues we ask: How does that affect———? Before the Civil War, all issues were subsumed by slavery; the tariff, internal improvements, territorial expansion were approved, opposed, or manipulated according to their perceived impact upon the battle between the "slave powers" and the free states. At the turn of the century, industrialization and the rise of giant corporations posed the challenge; conservation, antitrust legislation, and modernized government were part of the response. The Great Depression defined the 1930s; after 1945, the cold war cast its shadow over domestic politics as well as foreign affairs. The civil rights movement shaped the 1960s in ways too obvious to be seen at the time. Rights were expanded, grievances redressed, and authority, whether public or corporate, was continually called into account. Those themes carried over from the enfranchisement of blacks to the women's movement, the expansion of the welfare state, and even environmental concerns. Could institutions unable or unwilling to provide social justice, the reasoning went, be trusted to protect nature's bounty against dangers stemming from technology?

Now we are living in the era of the budget. The budget has been to our era what civil rights, communism, the depression, industrialization and slavery were at other times. Nor does the day of the budget show signs of ending.

Budgeting has always been important; it is a process by which resources are acquired and allocated to the vast array of activities that make up our national government. Presidents and Congresses have had bitter clashes. Richard Nixon's tactic, impoundment, was considered as an article in the bill of impeachment. A horror of deficits is deeply rooted


in American political rhetoric and belief, and blame for deficits has been a staple of political combat. Fights about the budget are not new.

What is new is their ubiquity. Year after year the key question has been, What will the president and Congress do about the deficit? Virtually all other issues are discussed and decided in terms of impacts on the deficit. Defense, for example, is discussed in terms not of strategy and needs but of the deficit and "fair shares" of the budget. For example, when Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown in the Philippines and replaced by Corazon Aquino, the new leader received a standing ovation from Congress, but her request for substantial aid was denied. The deficit mattered more.

That much is easy to see, but there is more. Budget worries shape the ways politicians make decisions. Congress and the president consider programs in terms of not only what they do or who they help but also when they spend the money. The appropriations committees meet targets for outlays by cutting quick-spending programs like military payroll instead of slow-spending ones like new aircraft carriers—even though both staff and committee members believe personnel and maintenance are more important than new procurement. As budget worries distort decisions, they combine with grave disagreement over priorities to distort procedure. More and more policy choices use two new, giant budgeting vehicles: the reconciliation act and the continuing resolution. Authorizers feel they are losing power to appropriators, who agree. Budget fights have "put things in such chaos," a House appropriations leader explains, "that in the end [the Appropriations Committee] is more powerful than before. Not by design but by dumb accident."

Not by design, but not quite by accident either, budget politics has shaped the wider conflict between the two political parties. Before Ronald Reagan took office, concern about the deficit's supposed effect on inflation and disagreement about military spending split and demoralized the Democratic party. Democrats lost both their rationale and their argument as to how spending programs, which served their constituents, were good for the whole nation. By 1984 Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale was campaigning on a promise to raise taxes so as to lower deficits. The strategy was so strange and unsuccessful that we might miss its significance: the Democrats were not sure what else to say. As for the Republicans, their problem has not so much been unpopularity; though they lost the Senate in 1986, they were better off than they had been for most of the postwar era. The Republicans' problem was guilt. After careers of inveighing against deficits, Republicans found themselves in charge of the worst deficits in history. A few, like Jack Kemp, didn't care. But most, like Bob Dole, did. As the budget


bind wore on, Republicans in Congress grew more and more desperate for a way out.

The deficit became a crisis of confidence for political leaders. Members of Congress particularly saw it as a test of responsibility, of their ability to govern. Their own self-criticism was amplified by the establishment press and academic economists. The public agreed, but the public also objected to almost any action. After all, nothing terrible had happened yet. Why risk recession or savage welfare or undermine defense when no such drastic action appeared called for? The public was willing to cut "waste," but the politicians believed they had to cut programs or raise taxes. They bewailed deficits so loudly largely to convince the public to accept some pain in the interest of deficit reduction, but the public wasn't buying. Caught between their own rhetoric (and beliefs) and the limits of public support, politicians did things that made them feel even worse. Both president and Congress cheated in budget assumptions. They made fake cuts, such as changing a payment date from the last day of one fiscal year to the first day of the next. At the height of their panic, the politicians passed Gramm-Rudman-Hollings—a piece of legislation best described as budgetary terrorism, only this time the hostages were their own keepers.

Budget stalemate generated a desire to demonstrate a capacity to govern that led to radical changes in tax and expenditure processes. The main theme was the public interest in deficit reduction versus the nefarious private interests in self-aggrandizement. Our book issues a fundamental challenge to this "politicians-as-fools-and-cowards" thesis.

As we write, the budget battles have hit a bit of a lull. President Bush and Congress have called a cease-fire. Calm, however, is not comfort. On Capitol Hill the staff and members of the appropriations committees agonize more than ever about how they will produce bills that have enough programs but a small enough total to get through Congress. Off the Hill, in the cold shadow of the stock market's "Black Monday," economists, journalists, and other policy elites talk about the dangers of a financial crash if the deficit is not "fixed." These worries may be overstated, but they are pervasive enough to assure that the next few years will be as beset by budget difficulties as were the last year of President Carter and the eight years of President Reagan. And that is if there is not a recession. The era of the budget is not nearly over.

If Americans are going to live with the dominance of budget politics, they had better understand it. We write this book to help both citizens and politicians understand what has been going on, why it has happened, and therefore what we may reasonably expect to happen next. Part of our concern is with matters of fact. Who did what to whom? Why? What


are the sides and the goals of the players? As best we can tell, what are the effects of the deficit? Where did it come from? These questions of fact then shade into questions of evaluation.

Evaluation can look like blame: Who is responsible for the deficit? But it is not just personal or partisan. Above all, we must understand what are reasonable demands of our political system. We agree with our politicians that the overarching question about deficit politics is whether our institutions and the people in them have behaved in a way that, given no democracy can satisfy everyone, is worthy of support. Ironically, we are more understanding of the politicians than they are of themselves.

The battle of the budget is a story of congressional horse-trading, partisan posturing, and technical tricks that affect billions of dollars. It is also a story of politicians operating within constraints set by both public opinion and political interpretations of economic reality. Throughout our story politicians were being told that the financial markets demanded one policy or another; as custodians of the economy, the government had to go along. We assess those claims, finding great reason for skepticism. Whether right or wrong, however, beliefs about how the budget affects the economy were and are a major part of budget politics. We therefore emphasize those beliefs—the "responsible opinion" represented in the pages of Time, the Washington Post, and other "powers that be" and stated with authority by "expert" economists. What these organs say is not simply "reporting" but a political fact. Politicians, like the rest of us, get opinions from experts and media stories; politicians, unlike the rest of us, have to worry about how the media will represent them to the public. For both reasons—the media as a source of opinion and as a shaper of it—the media view of what is required by the public interest influences political action.

Some of our facts will probably surprise most readers. Few people realize how much politicians, particularly members of Congress, have done about the deficit. They seem to have done little only because the problem was much larger than anyone realized. Each year's progress was diminished by each year's bad news. The budget cutting or defense buildup began not with Reagan but with Carter. And Reagan's victories in 1981 were primarily due to neither his great political skill nor positive public support. Far more important were the election of a much more conservative Congress than had existed before and a more negative desperation among the public, which made Democrats leery of seeming to obstruct. In these and other matters, we try to set the record straight.

Yet our evaluation may seem even more surprising. We see plenty of gimmicks, foolishness, and deception. But the crux of political understanding and practice is appreciating the many legitimate goals that people bring to a choice. Budgeting involves meeting obligations, keeping


promises. It involves choices about values, about which purposes are of highest priority. It involves questions of power: How are we to be governed, and by whom? Most of all, tax and spending decisions involve real people with real pain and real benefits. What happens to any of us—the fate of farmers, the poor, or General Dynamics—may have meaning to others. In the rhetoric of deficit reduction, these other matters are either disparaged as "special interests" or, worse, ignored. Persistent deficits are blamed on a lack of courage or good will. Wrong. Deficits persist because all choices are bad. Choices are hard because important values are helped or hurt by all alternatives.

We admit to a prejudice in favor of understanding other people's values. Not only is that our business, but we two disagree on much. One voted for Ronald Reagan; the other would vote for any Democrat, the more liberal the better. We do not believe that understanding political differences requires downplaying conflict. Instead, we emphasize the real differences of interest and ideology behind the convenient rhetoric of "public" versus "special" interests. Naturally all sides think they are the public and the other guys are the selfish special interests.

Rather than clearly distinguishing between private and public interests, much of politics focuses on defining the relationship of the respective spheres. Thus the battle of the budget is largely about defining the role of the government and its relationship to the people: which responsibilities with what priorities—managing the economy, protecting the poor, defending the nation—are things "all good people" should support. All good people do not agree; that's part of the problem. Because people define their private interest as the public interest, they become self-righteous; yet political debate has to work that way.

At bottom, the budget battles are about what kind of country we want to be, expressed through what kind of government we will have. Whether the deficit will be diminished as a proportion of national product at high or low levels of taxing and spending will make a significant difference in the kind and quality of public life. Whether the struggle over the deficit leaves us with enhanced respect for the procedures and institutions through which we attempt self-rule or destroys our respect for government may well matter as much or more than the outcomes of specific issues. All of us have heard of extremists of the right or the left. Extremism of the center, defined as disregard and belittling of established procedures and institutions in the name of a transcendent goal, such as budget balance, is a new and troubling phenomenon we wish to bring to public attention, partly because everyone else sees it differently or not at all. Procedures are not considered a problem, but big deficits justify radical change.

This book is the story of how budgeting overwhelmed governing. We


describe and discuss the ramifications of events in the economy, among the electorate, and in the policymaking processes of Washington, D. C. We hope to have captured the feel of events, the mood, because a growing frustration with budgeting became a factor in itself. Throughout we try to discern the real stakes behind the rhetoric. We emphasize why choices were so difficult.

In the end, we ask the big questions: What does this story tell us about our capacity to govern? Is ours a system, to quote Adlai Stevenson's definition of democracy, in which "the people get the government they deserve"? Can a government by the people and for the people have the authority to be a government of the people? Or does the budget impasse show that the more our government represents us, the less it can govern?



Imagine that you are standing before an audience of students or of the general citizenry and you ask whether they think Congress has done a little or a lot to reduce the deficit. Virtually 100 percent say "Little or nothing." They are wrong, as the reader will see, but in this respect their reply is only a tiny part of the flood of misinformation about the deficit that we seek to correct here—misinformation joined to a kind of collective amnesia in which only a few of the major events of the past decades, and virtually none of the budgeting decisions except the tax cuts, survive in public consciousness.

We try to remedy the lack of public memory by providing detailed accounts of decisions and of how budgets were made and unmade. The errors in what is remembered have led us to exercise exceptional care in assembling the facts. Because of the attention paid to taxing and spending at the time, there is a considerable public record on which to rely, including many published interviews with leading participants. We cite reports in the major media not only to verify facts that could be obtained from numerous (and, some readers have told us, more respectable) sources but also to show what politicians were reading and saying to one another at the time.

In order to probe more deeply, we also conducted 112 interviews with people in the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, the executive departments, and Congress. These discussions, sometimes lasting several hours, took place on condition that we not attribute them to their sources. It seemed more important to us to get closer to the truth than to attach names to interviews. Nevertheless, we have followed certain precautions: where different interviews bear each other out, we have so indicated; where sources conflict, we have let the reader know. By and large, once given the essential clues, we have been able to track down


the relevant information in published sources. Let us put the matter another way: there is much greater distance between the information available in numerous published sources and public discussion of the deficit than there is between different participants' versions of events.

We thank those participants who sought to enlighten us even at the risk of failing to persuade us of their interpretation of events. We are especially grateful to congressional staff members who devoted more time than we had a right to expect in order to explain the intricacies of budgeting matters as only they know them. We have tried to repay the gift of their time by providing an account that meets their standards.

Because we sought to recreate these events in lifelike detail, giving the reader the context as well as the facts themselves, our first draft was half again as large as this book. The reader must therefore sympathize with those who read the entire manuscript with a critical eye: Naomi Caiden, Donald W. Moran, Lawrence Malkin, Irene Rubin, Allen Schick, and anonymous reviewers from the Russell Sage Foundation and the University of California Press. A number of other people read selected chapters: Ron King, Theodore Marmor, William Niskanen, Richard Rose, and Murray Weidenbaum. They helped us improve our prose and straighten our line of argument. No one would dream of holding any of these responsible for a book that runs so strongly counter to the contemporary trend of finding fault with public officials, sometimes even excusing those who have faulted themselves.

Without the financial assistance of the Russell Sage Foundation, which gave a three-year grant to Aaron Wildavsky, the research for this book could not have been undertaken. Special thanks go to the presidents of the Foundation, Marshall Robinson, who helped get this project started, and Eric Wanner, who helped maintain it. When something happened that knowledgeable people believed could never occur, that is, tax reform, or never imagined might take place, namely, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, the Ford Foundation came to our rescue with a last-minute infusion of funds.

Aaron Wildavsky wishes to express his gratitude to the institutions at the University of California in Berkeley that sustained him during the years of research and writing a book of this kind requires: the Political Science Department, the Graduate School of Public Policy, and the Survey Research Center. They provided support for secretarial assistance, research, endless trips to the library, even longer telephone conversations; most of all, they accepted the not-always-self-evident proposition that something new could and should be said about federal budgeting.

There is no way to account for the innumerable conversations about budgets and deficits through which colleagues helped clarify our thoughts. John Gilmour, Duane Oldfield, and James Savage, then graduate


students and now colleagues in the political science profession, went back and forth with us over numerous issues and read several chapters in the critical way that only those who are exceptionally knowledgeable and who are getting their own back can muster. Naomi Caiden gave us her friendship as well as her discerning comments about what was really happening in the world of budgeting. Our debt to colleagues in the study of budgeting and national politics will be evident from footnotes. Here we would like to single out the helpful and eminent group employed by Congress at the Congressional Research Service. Our counselors there included Stanley Bach, Louis Fisher, Robert Keith, and our late and dearly missed friend Charles Levine. Congress is well served.

Joseph White researched and wrote part of this book in Berkeley, but most of his work was done at the Brookings Institution in Washington, where he was first a student fellow and then a staff member. Thanks to the hospitality of the two directors of the Brookings Governmental Studies Program, Paul Peterson and Thomas Mann, the two authors were able to work together during Aaron Wildavsky's frequent visits to Washington to interview and to discuss the research with his coauthor. Above all, Brookings gave Joseph White a home within that remarkable community of scholars. Among the many advisers found there—whether the authors' questions involved defense or welfare, process or purpose—good ideas came in a constant stream from Edward M. Bernstein, Daniel Brill, Joshua M. Epstein, Robert Katzmann, James M. Lindsay, Lawrence Malkin, Ken Mayer, David Menefee-Libey, Joseph Pechman, Paul Pierson, Robert Reischauer, Alice Rivlin, Mark Rom, Yahya Sadowski, Steven S. Smith, R. Kent Weaver, Thomas Weko, and others who should be thanked. It is superfluous to say that neither they nor the Institution is responsible for the content of this book, if only because they did not agree with one another and the authors often did not agree with them even while benefiting from their association.

A personal word from Joseph White: My brother, Michael J. White, has more to do than anyone else with what good I have managed to accomplish. From the time he taught me to read and do math and play chess, through my 3:00 A.M. talks with him when he got home from driving a cab while he was in college, through my own rough years in college and after, as, finally, I perhaps figured out what to do with my life, my older brother has been a joy and support. Beyond everything else, his eagerness to see the world clearly is the greatest gift he has offered me, and I have tried to seize it.

A dedication from Aaron Wildavsky: I would like to dedicate my half of the book to Daniel J. Tenenberg for his friendship and wisdom. Dan


has helped me see more clearly the difference between the versions of the public interest discussed here, from doing what other people think is good for them to doing what one thinks is good for others, especially when they don't like it. For an explanation of why that difference is central to understanding the battle of the budget, the dominant political issue of the 1980s, read on.


Madisonian Budgeting, or Why the Process is so Complicated

The United States government's budget process is unique in its complexity. No other nation has a legislature so strong it actually dominates spending and taxing decisions, though, of course, without actually eliminating the important part played by the president and the executive branch. Congress itself is notoriously fragmented, partly by constitutional design and partly because its members and their constituents like it that way. Because majorities within Congress shift from election to election and program to program, winning coalitions often differ from month to month and issue to issue. Thus, the president's budget proposal—really his asking price—varies from being the center of negotiations to "dead on arrival." And Congress is quite capable of engaging in a series of exhausting votes that do not resolve matters.

There is more. In recent years, Congress has made many changes in budget procedures, partly to make up for its failure to follow past procedures. But nothing has been thrown out. Thus congressional supremacy coexists with the 1921 measures giving the president a bit more to say and the 1974 measures taking some of that back and trying to centralize consideration of the budget within Congress. Budget committees are loaded on top of appropriations and revenue committees; budget resolutions whose rules differ in each house are superimposed on the regular legislative processes. If one multiplies the number of independent actors times the number of different procedures times the variety of issues, bringing forth different alliances, no other national process can match the American for the sheer volume of considerations that must be taken into account.

We call this budget process Madisonian because it is designed not to secure efficiency but to prevent the abuse of power. Of course, we could


argue that, because contemporary budgeting has not been designed by anyone, our ability to govern, not merely to prevent others from governing, is at stake. However one looks at this matter in the light of disputes over the deficit, the path of change leads through the same budget labyrinth. If you don't know the rules, you can't play the most important political game in America.

"Budget" is both a noun and a verb, both a thing and an action. According to one dictionary, to budget is "to determine in advance the expenditure of (time, money, etc.) over a period of time." We would add to this the common understanding that budgeting also involves assessing resources and relating them to expenditure. By another definition, the budget as a noun is a "comprehensive work plan," projecting the activities of an individual or organization.

The federal government does considerable budgeting, which means making commitments about future activity. Most of these commitments are in the form of either laws or agreements behind the laws between the executive and Congress. These are promises to society that government will do something: pay for medical care for the poor, buy some number of jet fighters, or employ so many people to test new pharmaceutical products.

The U.S. government does not, however, consider all these matters at once, creating a comprehensive work plan. The president's budget, issued with great fanfare each January, is indeed comprehensive. Yet it combines proposals for new commitments and estimates of old ones; it makes no commitments of its own. The obligations of the U.S. government are those mandated or permitted by law, and Congress passes no comprehensive budget law.

Instead, Congress (and the president by signing) makes commitments in a great many ways, at a great many times. "The budget" is not one decision but many.

Types of Budget Commitments

Laws that commit the government to spend money create budget authority . Budget authority (BA) is just what it sounds like: authority granted to some agent of the government to spend money. The money spent is called an outlay . Outlays cannot be made without budget authority; but some small amounts of BA may never be spent if the government buys something more cheaply than anticipated.

In a given year some appropriated funds may remain unspent. The acts provide budget authority, but each year's outlays (i.e., actual spending) combine this year's and previous years' authority. For example, an


appropriation may allow the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) to commit $200 million for a rapid transit extension in Chicago. This BA allows UMTA to enter into an obligation (i.e., contract) to spend that money. The money actually will be outlaid (spent) over a period of years as the extension is built and material, labor, and design are paid for. In fiscal 1980, the year before our story begins, 17.9 percent of federal outlays were based on such prior year contracts and obligations;[1] a similar percentage of the budget authority obligated for fiscal 1980 would not be spent until later years.

This difference between budget authority and outlays is the primary source of confusion for people who follow federal budgeting. Congress votes on BA, but each year's spending—and thus fiscal policy and the deficit—depends on outlays. Congress has some idea how much outlay will result from its votes on BA, but the estimates can be controversial.

Budget authority itself takes a variety of forms, related mostly to the kind of activity being authorized. The major distinction is between annual and permanent appropriations.

Annual appropriations are enacted in the yearly appropriations acts, which allow agencies (e.g., the FBI or National Institutes of Health) to spend or contract to spend specific amounts of money. Annual appropriations acts are drafted and managed by special appropriations committees in the House and the Senate. Each committee in each house has the same thirteen subcommittees and identical jurisdiction over a group of federal agencies. Each subcommittee is supposed to produce a bill for its jurisdiction every year; thus there are thirteen annual appropriations acts.

Permanent appropriations generally are made by Congress in other legislation; the most important is the Social Security Act of 1935 with its numerous amendments. Almost all these are entitlements; the law says that a person or group is "entitled" to some payment if certain conditions are met.

Entitlements do not specify spending totals. Total spending under these programs is simply the sum of legislatively mandated payments applied for by recipients. Totals are not only not directly chosen, but they can also be known only in retrospect. One cannot know in advance either the number of unemployed or their previous base earnings, and therefore one cannot know the cost of unemployment insurance. Finally, while some entitlements are formally appropriated (for example, for food stamps, each year appropriations must be made so programs can draw funds from the Treasury), the government's obligations are created in the authorizing law. The appropriations committees cannot erase those obligations.


The differences between appropriation and entitlement spending mean that legal authority for spending is the product of decisions made by different committees at different times. Entitlements have been adopted and amended separately over the years. When one considers that over half the outlays comes from entitlements and that each year's appropriations create outlays over a period of years, it should be no surprise that only 27.3 percent of the outlays in the government's 1980 fiscal year resulted from that year's appropriations process.

What is true of spending is more true of taxing: tax law is an accretion of years of decisions. Like entitlement legislation, tax law is open-ended: individuals are obligated to contribute according to some criteria; the government is not guaranteed some specific sum of revenue. Revenue may be influenced and estimated but not decreed.

Tax legislation is considered by the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Committee on Finance. These committees also control the many entitlement programs, such as unemployment compensation and the massive Old Age, Survivors, Disability and Health Insurance (OASDHI), that have special taxes to finance their benefits. OASDHI includes the old-age pensions we normally call social security, disability pensions, and medicare. Sometimes that system's taxes (FICA on your paycheck) are described as contributions earmarked for trust funds. They are still taxes: if you meet the criteria for paying them, do not pay them, and are caught, you may go to jail.

The tax committees have another type of jurisdiction that resembles spending in that it may allocate benefits among people and groups for social purposes: tax preferences . These provisions of the law can reduce a taxpayer's liability to the government so long as that person performs some act the government wishes to encourage. Tax preferences that benefit individuals greatly can yet be justified in wider social terms: the tax deduction for mortgage interest, for example, encourages both the construction industry and the social goal of widespread individual home ownership. Those who do not like a tax preference call it a loophole; the metaphor, suggesting money escaping or being diverted from its intended use, is misleading. Such loopholes, passed by Congress, are as intended as any other legislation.

Tax preferences and entitlements are similar in that people make commitments because of government policy—to invest under certain depreciation rules, to retire at a certain age given social security. Because people take action based on these promises, politicians are particularly reluctant to break them. The best-known entitlements and tax preferences are promises to huge numbers of people: the elderly (social security) or homeowners (the mortgage interest deduction). Both policies also increased substantially in the post-World War II era. On the spending


side, which received the most attention, entitlements grew in part from keeping old promises; as more and more people reached retirement age, the promised social security or civil service retirement pensions cost the government more. Entitlements also grew from making new promises: medical care for the aged (medicare), nutrition for the impoverished (food stamps), or increases in the benefits of big, old programs (social security).

Entitlement spending rose from 35.2 percent of federal outlays in fiscal 1967 to 53.6 percent in 1974 to 55.7 percent in 1980.[2] Many commentators view this increase as an end-run by authorizing committees (spenders) around appropriations committees (guardians of the public purse). Yet the major entitlements would fit poorly into a system of annual appropriations. Medical care for the aged, for example, could be provided by annually funded government-run hospitals, but that is called socialized medicine, not considered politically feasible. Once the decision is made to reimburse patients for costs incurred in the private sector, spending cannot be planned in advance. In short, there are legitimate policy reasons for entitlement funding—efficiency or the political difficulty of alternatives or the desire to keep promises.

These good reasons should not obscure the consequences for government. First, more and more spending is not controlled by the institutions created for annual review of spending, the appropriations committees. Second, entitlement spending is subject to the vagaries of the economy; in providing certainty to the recipients, the government takes uncertainty upon itself. Third, the major entitlements are very difficult to cut.

A Madisonian Budget System

All modern governments are constrained in their budgeting by similar problems of budget composition. Most, however, have far simpler political systems. The main story of this book, the battle for control between Congress and the president, would make no sense in other nations. In England or Germany or Japan or Sweden the executive grows out of and dominates the legislature; an executive cannot exist without a legislative majority. If no majority exists, the government loses a vote of confidence, and a new election is held. In the United States the executive and the legislature may remain locked in bitter combat for years, each unable to remove the other.

This separation of the executive and the legislature is one of two distinguishing and, for budgeting, crucial aspects of the political system created by the Constitution. It is not just a structure but a value: we are taught in school James Madison's arguments that "separation of powers"


and "checks and balances" prevent tyrannical government and protect minorities. What is less obvious may be even more important: a system of checks and balances means that the legislature is as strong as the executive.

In other countries the executive assembles a budget proposal, which is difficult enough, and presents it to the legislature, expecting it to pass, as designed, in one bill. There may be some small changes at the margins, but the legislature is in no position to extensively revise the executive's plan. After all, the prime minister leads the majority party or coalition. Even in American state governments, however, the legislature is much more active than elsewhere; and Congress is, beyond doubt, the most powerful legislature of all.[3]

Congress's unique role in budgeting is established by the Constitution, which states: "No Money may be drawn from the Treasury but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law" (Article 1, Section 9). The president can only spend money if Congress lets him. This power of the purse was described by Madison, extrapolating from Parliament's battles with the king, as "the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure."[4] Congress may not feel its power of the purse is quite so effective, but if members of Congress as a group can ever be said to agree on anything it is that their power of the purse must be retained if they are to maintain their independence.

That means power over little as well as big things. Editorialists—and presidents—continually criticize Congress for attention to details that are beneath the dignity of a national legislature. In his 1988 State of the Union message, President Reagan cited "such items as cranberry research, blueberry research, the study of crawfish and the commercialization of wild flowers." From Congress's perspective, however, the issue is not whether there will be programs with local "pork-barrel" benefits. The Department of Agriculture is going to do research on something, somewhere .[5] The issue is who will decide which localities benefit. If the president decides, he has a substantial weapon to reward and punish legislators; if he can control the members, he can control Congress.[6]

We have, then, a Madisonian budget system, based on ambition opposing ambition, as part of our Madisonian government. After two hundred years we still have a powerful legislature, divided internally and checked externally. If anything, the system of checks and balances has grown more elaborate, both internally through the committee system and externally as Congress has given the president powers to do things Congress feels necessary but difficult for itself.


The Executive Budget

The president's budget is issued at the beginning of each year, shortly after the president's State of the Union address.[7] To this writing, it remains the only document that resembles our commonsense notion of a budget: a detailed summary of anticipated expenses and revenues, summed to totals that represent the fiscal policy of the U.S. government, a financial plan. The budget is produced by the entire executive branch in a process of planning and projection that begins more than a year before the president submits it to Congress. Its preparation is overseen by an elite executive agency of more than five hundred employees (once the Bureau of the Budget; now the Office of Management and Budget). The budget is a six-hundred-page book, accompanied by an appendix roughly as large as the Manhattan telephone directory. Agencies submit tens of thousands of pages of further documentation that are supposed to support presidential proposals and provide detailed plans for using the resources Congress agrees to provide. The president's program sets a standard; proponents of increases to one or another category have to explain not merely why that program needs more money but why it should be allowed to throw the whole budget out of whack. Agency heads must argue for the president's proposals even if they had originally requested greater spending.

The president's budget is only a proposal, without legal force, but it gives him a loud voice in the budget debate. It is the president's program, endorsed by the only official "elected by all the people." The effort expended in its preparation argues for its support; the executive claims to have assembled and considered far more information than Congress could ever manage. If the executive agencies behave and support the budget (a huge "if"), the president can claim that the people who run the programs have asked for these amounts. Because the president ultimately hires and fires, the agencies have reason to go along.

Until 1975, the president could also claim that only his set of choices was calibrated to the needs of fiscal policy, managing the economy through manipulating the deficit. He had economic specialists, in the Treasury Department and the Council of Economic Advisers, to justify his choices. Congress had no comparable set of experts to respond, no means to develop its own fiscal policy.

The president's budget-making powers stem from the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. Before that act, agencies submitted their estimates directly to Congress. Although, like all legislation, it had multiple causes, the 1921 Act passed largely because, as Frederick C. Mosher explains, the First World War, "with its tremendous expenditures and


debt, magnified the enthusiasm among the public and particularly in the Congress for any measures that promised reduction of alleged governmental extravagance and taxes, and this was exactly what supporters of a budget system offered."[8] Reformers interested in making the government more businesslike had argued for several decades that the process of review and coordination of a national budget would make the government more efficient. The idea had strong popular support, and apparently many members of Congress who objected to giving the president new powers felt forced to go along.[9]

Congress, however, took steps to limit the grant. Most important, Congress still had to pass the laws; it had the last word. The 1921 Act also took the accounting oversight function away from the Treasury and vested it in the General Accounting Office (GAO), under a comptroller general appointed for a fifteen-year term with the advice and consent of the Senate and explicitly not subject to removal by the president. GAO was to be Congress's check on executive operations. Finally, in separate action, Congress strengthened its appropriations committees, in form at least, centralizing itself in response to the new central power within the executive.

This new set of procedures had one major advantage for Congress: it gave the president primary responsibility for proposing cuts, viewing him as better equipped for such a task because he can impose priorities within the executive branch far more easily than any group in Congress can impose its will on colleagues. (The executive is in principle, and in part in fact, a hierarchy; Congress is anything but a hierarchy.) Once the president imposed priorities, members of Congress could then respond to the budget, changing it where it differed too much from their own priorities or where constituency pressures were too great and leaving the president with the blame for other decisions.

In order to justify altering the president's budget, however, Congess had to claim comparable knowledge and ability to look at the whole picture. It opposed to the president's massive budget, documents the equally copious record of appropriations hearings. And the appropriations committees, while broadly decentralized in operation, somehow always managed to stay within the president's totals.[10]

Appropriations: The Old Congressional Budget Process

Thirty years ago, the "power of the purse" and "budgetary process" meant appropriations. Entitlements were smaller and, at any rate, they were not in the mainstream of government. The real work—building roads, testing drugs, forecasting the weather, defending our allies, paying salaries, and buying uniforms, tanks, and laboratory equipment—all


went through the appropriations committees. Because, as one current member puts it, "nothing happens without the money," those two committees were and remain among the most powerful and prestigious in Congress.

Their power and huge jurisdiction explains their structure. With fifty-seven members in the House and twenty-nine in the Senate, the two committees are easily the largest in Congress. They are big because they have so much work to do and because their members must have personal contacts throughout their houses. Appropriations committees have more subcommittees, which are particularly independent, because only the strongest of committee heads, with great knowledge and advantages in staffing, could hope to know enough to argue much with subcommittee leaders.

The heads of the thirteen appropriations subcommittees are known as the "College of Cardinals." The name testifies to the sense among other members of Congress that the Appropriations Committee is a priesthood of sorts, with its own rites and norms and with leaders wielding great power. That sense of appropriators as being different has always been much stronger in the House. Strength remains in the House because Appropriations is exclusive; a member of Appropriations cannot sit on any other House committee (except, under the new budget act, for five members who represent Appropriations on Budget). Before the vast expansion of congressional staff, members of House Appropriations did much of the budget review themselves. Time spent together and their involvement in a different kind of work built committee members' self-identification as appropriators, and nonmembers' view of them as forming an arcane priesthood. Even now the House committee, particularly its staff, remains an unusually unified and distinctive organization.[11]

The appropriations and authorizing committees are inherently in conflict. House rules distinguish appropriations from legislation and forbid legislation on an appropriations bill, but the separation is murky. Not funding an activity or funding it only under certain conditions (e.g., under what circumstances medicaid will pay for abortions) are policy decisions. If the military construction appropriation does not provide funds for housing American soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, then Congress is obstructing the Camp David agreement; an appropriation is legislating policy. Yet a military construction bill that says nothing about what will be built would be a bit skimpy.

In general, Congress expects the appropriators to make policy if, and only if, that is necessary to do their job; that is, no authoritative statement of current policy exists. An appropriations subcommittee chairman expressed the distinction: "Appropriations says the most efficient way to


spend money … [authorizations] should say what the need is." Authorizations can provide limits on the need (e.g., a billion dollars for mass transit), and appropriations above those limits are not in order. Likewise, appropriations are not in order for a program that has not been authorized. These rules are weakened, however, by the fact that appropriations are laws like any other laws: they supersede older legislation. If Congress chooses to override its own rules about appropriations, it is within its rights.

Members of Congress frequently legislate on appropriations bills for various reasons. The authorizations committees may refuse to report legislation that would be supported on the floor. In cases of disagreement between the committee and chamber majorities, the latter can express its will through the appropriations. Thus U.S. aid to South Vietnam was ended in an appropriations bill. Opponents have extensively restricted federal funding for abortion through versions of the "Hyde amendment." Sometimes, authorizing legislation for a program has lapsed because of disagreement over some terms of its authorization. Everybody knows that the dispute will be settled but not on what terms or when. By funding the program (Housing, the Department of State, the Department of Justice) anyway, the appropriations committees technically legislate. Sometimes the appropriators just want some program change (rarely large) and can ram it through.

Appropriations, through which Congress exercises its power of the purse over the executive, can easily constitute a parallel legislative process for the president as well. A president who wants to kill programs would be crazy to push for new legislation; instead, a Nixon or Reagan proposes to zero out the appropriation. He can use his veto against appropriations, but he cannot force legislation.

Yet the veto is weakened for the same reason that members are tempted to use appropriations to legislate: the bills must pass. Almost every bill contains enough "must" items for enough members to make failure unthinkable.[12] Opponents of postal subsidies generally want to keep the IRS and Customs Service, all from the Treasury-Postal-General Government bill. Opponents of housing tend to like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the National Science Foundation and the Veterans Administration, all in the HUD (Housing and Urban Development)-Independent Agencies appropriations act. If those bills fail, parts of government important to many people may fail with them.

Appropriations bills are targets of extraneous "riders" precisely because the appropriations train is going to get through—maybe not on schedule, but eventually. Ultimately the norms that say appropriations should be matters of economy, good management of programs, and routine financing of existing obligations conflict with the opportunity


that appropriations provide to get something done in a Madisonian system of checks and counterchecks.

The old system of House, Senate, president, authorizations, and appropriations was difficult enough to operate. Good times in the 1950s and 1960s helped, and so did a system of mutual expectations and roles that reflected substantial agreement (in retrospect) between Congress and the president on matters of budgetary priorities.[13] From 1966 to 1973, the system broke down in what Allen Schick called "The Seven-Year Budget War." Congress responded in the Budget Control and Impoundment Act of 1974.

Creating a New Budget Process

Like a family that expected good times and then was disappointed, the federal government in the early 1970s found itself without enough money to meet all its commitments. Entitlements grew faster, and the economy (and hence revenue) grew slower than expected. The deficit rose from 5.5 percent of federal outlays in fiscal year (FY) 1967 to 11 percent in FY71. The problem was more difficult than it sounds because the growth of entitlements meant that the old budget process of appropriations covered less of the budget. To eliminate the deficit through that system would have required cutting 8.4 percent of appropriations in 1967 but 19.6 percent in FY71.[14] The appropriators, and many other people, wanted some way to bring entitlements into the purview of annual budget choice.

Deficits alone, however, could not have united a broad bipartisan majority behind the Budget Act of 1974; for that, Congress needed Richard Nixon, who gave liberals reason to go along. Congress and the Nixon administration got into a vicious and enervating struggle over deficits and, more important, budget priorities. Nixon tried to slow the expansion of the welfare state and other functions by keeping budgets down, particularly for new programs. At the same time, he wanted to wind down ("Vietnamize") the war more slowly than did the war's critics and to employ any savings to remedy claimed military weaknesses that had been ignored while resources were poured into Indochina. Liberals particularly could not see why the military deserved a funding bill created for a war that was a mistake in the first place.

The story of these battles has been told extensively elsewhere.[15] For our purposes, three points are crucial:



Nixon blamed Congress for the deficit; members of Congress were embarrassed by the charge even if they did not believe it.


Nixon continually justified his restraint of domestic programs in


terms of the supposed inflationary impact of deficits. He had OMB, Treasury, and the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) justifying his fiscal policy, but Congress had no fiscal policy at all. If Congress was to look good while opposing Nixon on the details, the leaders of the opposition needed some way to claim that they were attending to the totals.


Nixon kept getting beaten. After the 1972 election, he decided he could win only by changing the rules. Nixon impounded—simply refused to spend—billions of dollars in appropriations that he disliked.

Impoundment was an old device based on an understanding that if events changed, making an appropriation either no longer necessary or unserviceable, the executive did not have to spend it, so long as most concerned members of Congress agreed. It was supposed to be a tool for better management, and it presumed that the players agreed on policy. Instead, as Allen Schick wrote,

far from administrative routine, Nixon's impoundments in late 1972 and 1973 were designed to rewrite national policy at the expense of congressional power and intent. Rather than the deferment of expenses, Nixon's aim was the cancellation of unwanted programs…. When Nixon impounded for policy reasons, he in effect told Congress, "I don't care what you appropriate; I will decide what will be spent."[16]

"The aim of impoundment was," Schick adds, "to change the mix, not merely the level, of expenditures."[17]

The policy stakes in Nixon's impoundments were striking enough, but the political stakes were decisive. Save during a major war, no president had ever so bluntly asserted his primacy over Congress. If Nixon could get away with massive impoundments, what could he not do? If the power of the purse could be defied, what was left for Congress?

The world had been stood on its head. Since the time of royal governors and their civil lists, the legislature's problem had been to restrain the executive by limiting its funds. Now it faced a chief executive who wanted to spend too little, who defied the legislature (which, as far as Congress was concerned, meant the people) by refusing funds for the bureaucracy.

The Budget Act of 1974

The 1974 Budget Act represented a wholly unprecedented approach to budgeting: the legislature itself, debating freely and openly and considering


relevant information, would make programs fit fiscal policy; the parts would fit the whole. Congress would make a budget.

Republicans hoped that "spenders," forced into the glare of public scrutiny, would retreat from their nefarious schemes. Democrats hoped that the conservative priests of budget balance—forced to relate generalities about waste or states' rights to the body of programs that built the roads, fed the poor, and supported the farmers—would no longer be able to deceive the public with platitudes. Each believed that God, which in a democracy means the public, was on its side. The public, as our story will show, was on both sides and neither side.

A new procedure formalized and limited impoundment.[18] If Congress were to make fiscal policy, it needed its own economists. If it were to consider program costs, it needed neutral analysts, separate from its committee staffs, just as the executive had an OMB independent of the agencies. Therefore the Act created a new staff institution, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). If CBO said a program would cost twice what its proponents claimed, the CBO could be believed. Its director, appointed jointly by the Speaker of the House and Senate president pro tem for a four-year term, has extensive authority over the office.

Under Dr. Alice Rivlin, CBO gained a reputation for both competence and neutrality. Because estimates of future spending cannot be known with certainty, CBO, like everybody else, errs. In regard to estimates of both the economy and individual program costs, however, CBO usually has less reason to compound lack of knowledge with a policy-political bias than do agencies or the OMB. In its first few years, especially, CBO's estimates proved the more accurate.

CBO and the impoundment-control process easily found their places in the congressional process. The budget committees and new budget resolutions fit far less well.

The Senate Budget Committee (SBC) was established with sixteen members (now twenty-two), chosen by party caucuses and serving indefinitely. The House Budget Committee (HBC) was structured in an unusual manner. Five of its members were to come from the Appropriations Committee and five from Ways and Means. One would be a member of the Democratic leadership, and one would come from the Republican leadership. The other thirteen members were appointed through the usual House procedures (and the numbers were increased as the committee grew more popular). The committee is a mixture, therefore, of regular members and those who represent power centers within the House. In addition, membership is rotating, rather than permanent; no member could serve on the Budget Committee for more than four (now six) years out of every ten. Rotation decreases the chance that committee members will become isolated or parochial in their viewpoints.


Rotation aids HBC in gaining information from other committees and also ensures that the committee's power is not hoarded by a small group of representatives. But rotation also weakens the committee, especially its head, because committee members, aware of the rotation, can afford to cross him.

The budget committees were to write a pair of budget resolutions. The First Resolution (to be passed by May 15) would set targets for other committees and Congress as a whole to meet; it is a formal counterpart to the president's budget. The resolution recommends totals for budget authority (BA), outlays, revenue, and thus the deficit and total public debt. It provides spending targets for each budget function (into which the president's budget is also divided), such as Function 150, International Affairs, or Function 350, Agriculture. Under Section 302(a) of the Act, after a resolution is passed, the budget committees report to every other committee the total outlays and new budget authority it could appropriately provide under the terms of that year's resolution. Under Section 302(b) each committee (most important, Appropriations) subdivides its 302(a) allocation among its subcommittees. The First Resolution was thus half a version of the president's budget. It divided spending into functions; 302(a) reports related the functional division to actual bills, and the Budget Committee staffs, at least, had a good idea of how much should be spent at the program and subcommittee levels. But the real allocation among programs was not in the budget resolution; it would be made by the other committees.

The budget committees used the president's budget, CBO analyses, views and estimates of need that other committees were required to submit by March 15, and their own extensive staff and hearings to develop the policy and political information needed to draft first resolutions. Procedures in passing that resolution were much like those for any other bill, except that, because it was a rule for Congress, it did not need the president's signature. Nor did it have the force of law or appropriate funds. The First Resolution was only a recommendation, less detailed than the president's budget but, as the product of a lengthy process of discussion and accommodation within Congress, more likely to reflect what Congress would actually do. And, like the president's budget, its estimates of revenue and debt and entitlement spending were as much wishful thinking as plan, dependent upon estimates of the future course of the economy.

By early September all relevant authorizations and appropriations were to have been passed. The budget committees were to review economic developments and legislative actions and then report out versions of the Second Concurrent Resolution on the budget. The Second Resolution


had the same components as the First, except that its totals were supposedly binding. Thus, after passage of the Second Resolution, any legislation considered that would cause limits in that resolution to be breached could be objected to and ruled out of order. As the Act was written, if the limits in the Second Resolution would not be met as a result of legislation already passed, then reconciliation instructions could be included in that resolution. These would order the relevant committees to report legislation reconciling spending or taxing to the budget totals. The necessary legislation was supposed to be passed by September 25, in time for the new fiscal year to begin on October 1.

Special procedures expanded both the appropriations committees' ability to question entitlement growth and their control over various other types of backdoor spending. CBO's independent analysis was expected to restrain new entitlements by making their costs more prominent; no new entitlements could be created before the start of a new fiscal year; and the appropriations committees received a limited right to propose amendments to new entitlement legislation that exceeded the committee of jurisdiction's allocation under the First Resolution.

In form, therefore, the 1974 act created a real budget. Congress would choose totals, look at programs, and make the details conform. Entitlement spending would be confronted while totals were being considered. The process of adopting resolutions would draw attention to questions of the relative sizes of revenue and expenditures and their effects on the economy far more explicitly than had been possible in the past; and voting would force members of Congress to take stands in a way not previously required. Debate on the floor would inform legislators and the public about the choices made. The procedures that related taxing and spending to the size of the budget would force Congress to take the totals seriously.

How the New Process Worked

In 1980, as this book begins, Congress had been working within its new process for five years.[19] One cannot say the system was working as intended because its sponsors disagreed on the intent. A few developments, however, were worth noting.

The budget committees had developed very differently in the Senate and the House. Senate Budget Chairman Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) and ranking minority member Henry Bellmon (R-Okla.) worked to develop resolutions that could command substantial bipartisan support. In the House, by contrast, Republicans viewed the resolutions as the place to demonstrate the difference between the two parties. Because resolutions


became partisan battles, the committee heads had to win majorities entirely within the Democratic party. Party leaders therefore became key actors in the House process. House resolutions tended to be more liberal than the Senate's, given the different coalitions needed to pass them.

First resolutions had not significantly constrained spending. If anything, they allowed liberal majorities in 1975 and 1976 to justify their opposition to President Ford's proposed spending cuts. The heavily Democratic majorities of 1975–1978, however, should not have been expected to want to limit spending. By 1979, in the wake of the Proposition 13 tax revolt in California, inflation fears, and a Democratic president's attempts to restrain spending, the First Resolution was assuming some spending cuts.

But the system had no teeth. Reconciliation was too late in the schedule; no one could expect committees to draft, debate, report, pass, and then confer on reconciliation bills in the ten days allowed—from September 15 to September 25. The big stick of the Second Resolution was the point of order against legislation that breached its totals, but this weapon was less than it seemed. The point of order could be waived; although HBC and SBC in different ways influenced that decision, the committees could be overridden on the floor. The proposals for increased spending could be virtually irresistible (e.g., food stamps running out of money or a Mount St. Helens blowing its top). Most important, even when a set of spending acts passed after the Second Resolution, the overall total was not likely to be exceeded until the last one or two bills. And that straggler was likely to be totally guiltless (like foreign aid, always late and always slashed before it reached the floor). It did not make much sense to savage one bill because of failings on others.

Although the new process was weak, it nonetheless was used in the battles over policy. Program opponents (or supporters) could claim that the First Resolution did not (or did) leave room in the budget for funding. Seeking to satisfy constituents, members could propose extra funding for pet programs in budget debate, where the results were not binding. Thus to the regular legislative process of authorizations and to the alternate legislative process of appropriations now was added a shadow legislative process of budget resolutions. We say "shadow" because its forms were produced by real bodies and real conflict, but themselves had no substance.

Whatever their effect, budget resolutions stood forth as visible statements about the direction of the nation. Therefore, the seven-year budget war did not end; only the field and weapons changed. Most Democrats and most Republicans, egalitarian liberals and individualist conservatives, fought over the size of government and, within that, over


emphasis on military or social welfare spending. The budget resolution figures for spending and revenues, for defense and social functions, became battlegrounds even though they were not binding.

Coda: A Budget Is Many Things and One of Them Is a Performance

The budget is many different policies. It is fiscal policy, designed to stimulate or restrain the economy, to fight unemployment or inflation. The budget summarizes the balance of public and private sectors of the economy—the proportion of GNP taken by taxes or consisting of federal government spending—in short, "how much" federal government we have. The distribution of spending in very broad categories describes the kind of government we want: one that emphasizes military might or protects the middle class or helps the poor. The assumptions in budget resolutions, and action on appropriations or entitlements or tax expenditures, make the budget also a package of thousands of specific program policies: how much to invest in airport safety; which people, if any, should receive special nutrition benefits; how many F-16s the Air Force needs.

For partisans, particularly leaders, of the Democratic and Republican parties, the aggregates in the budget resolutions represent their party's influence on the course of American government; short of the actual organization of the two houses (election of the Speaker, committee assignments), no other action is potentially of as great import to the party leadership. The battle of the budget tests their generalship. The ability of the parties to stay together in the final encounter, apart from the vote to organize the houses along partisan lines, is now their ultimate test of cohesion.

To those members of Congress who identify with the institution—which, depending upon the issue and challenge, ranges from a few to all—budgeting tests Congress: Can Congress choose? Can it enforce its will? In short, can Congress govern? The president asks the same questions, slightly changed: Can I govern the agencies? Can I govern Congress? Can I govern responsibly and maintain public support? Finally, both president and Congress must ask: Do we control policy, or do the policies control us? Can any of us control events?

Republicans and Democrats alike had agreed that the great issues should be faced directly and without obfuscation. How the people they represent would fare under a budgetary process that compels great choices without agreement on what those choices should be is an integral part of the deficit problem, for it is one thing to agree that the deficit is too large and another to agree on how to reduce it.


Democrats in a Budget Trap

In 1980 the Democratic party lost control of the American government. The Democrats' defeat was most evident in the election. Incumbent Jimmy Carter got only 41 percent of the vote, with 51 percent going to Republican Ronald Reagan and 7 percent to independent John Anderson. In the House of Representatives, the Democratic majority was slashed by thirty-three seats, a change that, considering conservative southerners, made the Democratic majority fade away. Most dramatically, Democrats lost twelve Senate seats; their once solid majority now had melted to a forty-six to fifty-three minority. For the first time since 1954, Republicans would rule a house of Congress. For the first time in more than twenty years, a Republican president could more than dream of having legislative majorities to enact his program.

The election, however, only formalized the Democrats' loss of control. There is more to governing than simply holding office. In 1980 the Democrats could not govern because they could not agree on how to use the offices they held. Bitter divisions were revealed in Senator Edward M. Kennedy's (D-Mass.) challenge for the presidential nomination. But the nomination battle was only one phase of the strife within the governing coalition in Washington. Assailed from the left of his party in the campaign, Carter was, attacked from the right in Congress. In either arena, conflict centered on the budget and the economy.

Internal conflict was hardly new to the Democratic party. As in any coalition, Democrats managed conflict by bargaining on some issues and, where agreement was impossible, ignoring others. Unfortunately for them, the Democrats could not finesse their 1980 disagreements over budget policy.


The Budgeting Dilemma

Budget resolutions (setting internal congressional targets for total spending and revenue) and appropriations could be delayed but eventually would have to be passed. When resolutions were considered, Democrats had to face the great divisive issues of defense spending and inflation. On defense, a large faction of Democrats, led by Senators Hollings of South Carolina and Nunn of Georgia, was enough alarmed by America's military position to join Republicans in fighting President Carter for a larger military buildup. And many Democrats, along with most Republicans, felt that inflation posed so great a threat that some action—probably budget balancing—was imperative.

Two contradictory pressures—higher defense spending and stopping inflation—originated in attitudes toward events beyond Capitol Hill. The Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, the administration's reaction to a Soviet combat brigade in Cuba, and the taking of American hostages in Iran all helped generate a sense of American military weakness. Voters in their districts and commentators in the media informed politicians that people felt insecure about national defense.

Congress clamored for a big defense buildup. Speaker O'Neill declared:

I think the mood out there is that we have to be prepared for conventional skirmishes, and the American people feel for the first time that we do not have that capability. I'm talking about the safety of the country, and you put that ahead of energy, inflation, balancing the budget and everything else.[1]

If Carter bowed to this pressure, yet wanted to balance the budget, he would have to raise taxes further or turn on the Democrats' own constituencies by taking from social programs to give to defense; if the president held down the defense buildup, he would come under fire for risking the nation's security.

But if the public felt insecure about defense, it reached near panic at the prospect of inflation. The polls were showing inflation as the major political issue, while financial markets gyrated wildly and the media clamored for action.

Consumer prices already had increased by 13 percent in 1979, and the trend was toward even faster increases. The inflation reduced individuals' real average gross weekly earnings by about 4 percent in 1979.[2] Consequently, the public's pain threatened to become the president's trouble. In mid-October 1979 a Gallup poll showed that only one-third of the respondents approved of Carter's job performance (with half


disapproving) and that two-thirds listed inflation as the nation's most important problem.[3] Conventional wisdom said that one way to reduce inflation was to reduce the federal budget deficit.

Whether the deficit increased inflation or not, inflation did increase the deficit. Social security and the other pension programs were slated for large increases in fiscal 1981, mandated by law to compensate their beneficiaries for the 1979–1980 inflation. Costs of medical programs could be predicted to rise as the price of health care soared, along with fuel costs for the military and food costs for school lunches; in many such ways inflation would increase the cost of providing in FY81 the same services provided in FY80. Price increases were accompanied by (somewhat smaller) wage hikes, thereby increasing collections from income and other payroll taxes. The burden on many taxpayers increased as their nominal wages crept up into higher tax brackets but their real wages (what they could buy) remained steady or declined because prices rose more quickly. This automatic tax hike angered voters. Yet even higher tax payments from "bracket creep" could not make up for the automatic increases in entitlement funding and the desired jump in military spending.

The dilemma for Democrats was to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable: cutting deficits caused by inflation in order to reduce inflation, while increasing defense spending and diminishing the tax burden. Something had to give; in 1981 the Reagan administration risked higher deficits to build the military up and keep taxes down. But in 1980 Jimmy Carter went the other way.

By all reports, Carter, who introduced the "zero base budgeting" reform system in Georgia, truly believed in the fiscal responsibility and control that a balanced budget represents.[4] This belief, moreover, was reinforced in the political-economic arena. His Republican challengers naturally were denouncing deficits, but so were Democrats: California Governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown, Jr., supported a constitutional amendment calling for a balanced budget; even Senator Edward Kennedy condemned deficits, announcing in late January that he favored "the steps that have been taken by the Congress to insure that we're going to achieve a balanced budget next year."[5] Most Americans agreed that a balanced budget was desirable; in March 1980, for example, a Gallup Poll reported respondents supporting by more than four to one a constitutional amendment requiring balanced budgets.[6]

In addition to the lasting symbolic power of a balanced budget in American political history—as a sign that things were right and government could govern—support for balanced budgets had two contemporary sources. One was a deep, widely held suspicion that the federal government wastes money—fifty-two cents on every dollar, according to


the median respondent in a November 1979 Gallup Poll.[7] In the public mind, an unbalanced budget stands for and allows wastefulness. The second source was a widespread belief that government deficits fuel inflation. Although the link is neither direct nor predictable, and is possibly even mistaken when overwhelmed by other factors, most economists believe that deficits work more to increase than to decrease prices. The March 1980 Gallup Poll showed that the public, by more than a four to one margin, agreed that deficits were more likely to raise prices. In January 1980, government waste probably had not changed, but inflation was increasing dramatically. Politicians, therefore, seized on deficit reduction as something they could do about inflation.

The Politics of Recession

The difficulty with using the budget to attack inflation was that a recession might well result, bringing unemployment, lower profits, and bankruptcies. Recessions are not popular; neither, under normal circumstances, are presidents who go out of their way to start them.

Carter faced unique difficulties because he was a Democrat. Recessionary policies would attack his party's basic constituencies: labor and beneficiaries of social programs. In October, James Fallows reflected on Carter's plight:

Ford and Nixon were Republicans, and therefore had some theoretical excuse for tolerating unemployment while fighting inflation. For a Democrat to do that is like an American fighter plane joining a kamikaze squad: no one can figure out what's in it for him.[8]

Because Democratic politicians were particularly opposed to unemployment, and because Republican politicians were particularly opposed to Democratic administrations, Carter could count on no one to support a recessionary budget. Beyond such short-term tactical difficulties, to pursue unemployment explicitly flew in the face of the mission and history of the Democratic party. Democrats had become the majority party because, in the Great Depression, they had worked to reduce unemployment and its miseries. Democrats built the modern welfare state so that fluctuations in the economy, the boom-and-bust business cycle, would not leave millions destitute. As the party of full employment, Democrats liked to portray Republicans as the party of unemployment. Even in January 1980, when the Carter administration's inability to control inflation caused Americans to feel that Republicans would be better at running the economy, the Republican party's own polls reported that Americans (by nearly two to one) still believed that Democrats were better at reducing unemployment, helping young people buy homes, and


providing financial security for the elderly.[9] If they began to create unemployment, what were Democrats good for? If the public wanted to cut social programs, why not just hire some Republicans to do the job?

Caught in a double bind, the administration, like Goldilocks, wanted a recession that was "just right": one that would both reduce demand (one source of price pressure) and be seen to reduce demand (thereby reducing expectations of inflation, a major source, some thought, of the spiral), yet not hurt anyone very much. Ideally the recession would be long enough to convince the public but short enough to seemingly end by election day. By January 1980 it may well have been too late to accomplish any of those goals.

Carter's Goldilocks budget predicted an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent for 1980, inflation of 10.4 percent, and a FY81 deficit of $15.8 billion. Defense spending was up by choice; entitlements were up by inertia; and the remaining domestic budget was held constant or slightly decreased. The deficit would go down, in spite of higher unemployment, because taxes would go up. Inflationary effects on wages and legislation passed or in progress (e.g., the projected adoption of the windfall profits tax on oil companies and a January 1981 scheduled increase in the social security payroll tax) would increase revenues by 14.5 percent over the FY80 level, compared to a 9 percent spending increase.

Essentially, Carter was pushing the economy toward recession with higher taxes. His budget message promised to limit the pain of the unemployed. The deficit, he said, was only one cause of inflation. But the basic message remained that "by continuing a clear and consistent policy of restraint, the 1981 budget ensures that the federal budget will not be an inflationary force in the economy."[10] Another term for restraint was unemployment.

The president and his advisers had decided that to limit inflation—and to be seen as steadfast in this—was more important politically than to avoid tax increases. They believed that the public was willing to pay a high price to stop the inflationary spiral.[11] Yet accepting unemployment levels of more than 7 percent without countermeasures was extraordinary, especially for a Democratic administration. The administration could not have accepted such a grim prospect if its economic theory had offered any alternative.

The Economics of Recession

The administration's theory emphasized the impact of oil shocks on "core inflation." In mid-1979, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) doubled oil prices. Oil was more expensive, so the nation would have either less oil or less of something else. In real terms (product


per person), paying more for oil meant less personal income. As prices affected by oil rose, workers would try for proportionate pay increases in their wage bargaining. If workers succeeded, businesses that gave raises would immediately raise prices, hoping thereby to recapture profits. Then workers in other industries would react to these new prices by demanding higher wages from their employers. Wages and prices would chase each other at increasing speed, both spiraling upward, as employer and employee groups strove to stick the other with the cost of OPEC's oil. At worst, the spiral takes on its own life, as workers and managers expect it to continue, separate from its original cause.

This self-perpetuating spiral is called the core inflation rate. Administration economists believed that core inflation was up to 8 percent in 1979, and heading much higher, and their solution was to keep wages from chasing prices; the only reliable way to do this was through unemployment, which would pressure workers to accept smaller wage increases or lose their jobs to those already unemployed. Thus, as John Berry of the Washington Post reported the policy, "slower economic growth and higher unemployment [were] the key to both the short-run and the long-run attack on rising prices."[12] Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Charles Schultze said that "the Administration's greatest fear involves a further increase in inflation if workers try to recover some of the purchasing power lost last year to inflation and, particularly, to higher oil prices."[13]

While Carter's dilemma recalled Goldilocks, reactions to the budget reminded us of the classic Japanese story of Rashomon, in which the same event is reported entirely differently by various participants and witnesses. The National Journal titled its story, "A Campaign Budget for an Election Year," mentioning all the bows to defense, domestic programs, and anti-inflation pressures while somehow ignoring the electoral problems presented by tax increases. But The Economist proclaimed:

The deficit is an infinitesimal part of a $3 trillion GNP and is dwarfed by the foreign tax imposed on the American economy by OPEC's increased oil prices. President Carter has presented a non-electioneering budget in an election year. Such courage deserves to succeed.[14]

Time described the galloping inflation and concluded that "the injection into the economy of new cold war defense spending, without any concomitant reduction in social expenditures, could be like hitting the gas pedal in a car already careening out of control down a hill."[15] Newsweek's writers saw the exact opposite. "At bottom," they concluded, "the Carter budget obviously reflects the lessons learned in the late 1960s when Lyndon Johnson's pursuit of a guns-and-butter policy started the nation on a road to a disastrous inflation."[16]


These different judgments reflected the clashing perspectives about the economy that observers applied to Carter's set of choices. Each columnist wrote as if the analysis was self-evident but each analysis, of course, was not. The agreements and disagreements among competing schools of economists would, however, influence budget politics until the present time. We pause to describe the competing schools.

Economists and Budgets

In politics, though not in logic, there are three relevant schools of economists: Keynesians; an alliance of supply-siders and monetarists; and neo-classicists.

The Keynesian Orthodoxy

However painful the conditions, classical economics claimed that government could do nothing to correct the problem of unemployment; instead, market conditions eventually would right themselves. Unemployment, for example, could lower wages to a point where hiring people would be more attractive. Looking at the 25 percent unemployment of the 1930s, Keynes pointed out that when times got rough enough no one would hire people because there would be no customers. Businesses needed to perceive a demand for their products. Without demand, even cheap labor would not be hired.

Keynes argued that the government could create demand, either by itself purchasing new goods and services (direct spending) or by increasing the money in people's pockets through a tax cut. Either way, a government deficit would result. But, by "priming the pump," government might get the economic well to again yield some water.

If a deficit would heat up the economy, a surplus, by reducing consumption (as the government took in money without spending it), would cool the economy down. Reduced demand would mean reduced inflation; in essence, a trade-off between limiting unemployment and limiting inflation could be managed through the government deficit.

Experience in the 1970s challenged Keynesian theory in two ways: First, over the decade, inflation and unemployment both rose; and inflation rose far more quickly than the level of employment seemed to warrant. Second, the United States faced a growing productivity crisis. Growth of GNP was slow—compared to both American experience in the previous two decades and the rate of growth in other industrialized nations, such as Japan.

The Supply-Side Challenge

The supply-siders, as their name suggests, argued that by emphasizing demand Keynesians had neglected the factors that encourage investment.


They claimed that productivity had slowed because government policies reduced the incentive to produce. Regulation had business owners filling out forms rather than doing business. High, progressive income taxes reduced the reward for working harder or investing more.

One version of this tendency, represented by the editors of the Wall Street Journal, emphasized reduction of what they deemed unproductive public spending:

Income transfers conducted through the federal budget are seriously eroding savings and capital formation…. In other words, it is money transferred from people who are working to people who are not, lowering the incentives of both for productive labor .[17]

The Journal's editors believed that the welfare state had broken the link between work and reward. This side of the analysis was congenial to oldline Republicans who disapproved of nearly all government activity except maintaining public order and security. Another side, exemplified by Representative Jack Kemp, was willing to maintain most existing governmental activities (an important difference) while emphasizing the positive effects of tax cuts. Economist Arthur Laffer claimed that high taxes so discouraged economic activity that a large cut, by increasing incentives to work and invest, would generate much economic growth. In a reasonably short time, therefore, even the government would be better off because the smaller tax cut would come from a much larger economic pie. This was the (in)famous "Laffer Curve."

The supply-side analysis essentially ignored the demand problem that preoccupied Keynesians. Also it paid little attention to interest rates, which surely, if to an unknown degree, influenced rates of investment and economic growth. Yet, in spite of these analytic weaknesses, supply-side proponents had two practical advantages: in proposing tax cuts they were suggesting something that politicians like to do; they also were proposing to manipulate an instrument of policy—tax rates—that, unlike interest rates or personal consumption, the government could directly control.

Laffer used the Keynesians' tax cut during the Kennedy administration as an example of how lower taxes could increase economic growth. Keynesians, however, had argued that tax cuts stimulate demand and thus, potentially, inflation. With inflation already high, supply-siders needed a counterargument. They found it by allying with the monetarists, who held that monetary, not fiscal, policy affected prices.

Money and Monetarism

To monetarists, inflation came from too much money chasing too few goods. Prices rose when the banking system, meaning the Federal Reserve in its various ways of influencing banks, created money faster than


the rest of the economy produced goods. If the Federal Reserve contracted the money supply, then prices would go down because there would be less money for goods. This deflation, monetarists believed (and Keynesians agreed), would slow down economic activity because it would make more sense to hold dollars, which would buy more goods later, than to invest or spend them, receiving fewer dollars later given price declines. Monetarists such as Nobel laureate Milton Friedman argued that, if the Federal Reserve maintained a steady, moderate rate of growth of the money supply, the economy would avoid both depression and inflation.

Perhaps this is true, but the Fed's actions also influenced interest rates, because the price of something depends on its supply. Rates depend as well on the demand for money, which brings us to the Federal Reserve's role in managing the federal debt.

Government bonds, "T-bills," and so on are the safest of all investments because the government can get money in ways that private industry cannot match and because, if the government went under, everything else would collapse with it anyway. The government will pay whatever interest is necessary to sell its bonds. If the government increases its sale of bonds (deficit) during an economic downturn, these sales will soak up idle cash and put it to (relatively) productive use. But if idle money is scarce, then the deficit must divert cash from other kinds of investments (crowd them out) and, in the competition for investment money, can drive interest rates upward. Keynesians and neoclassicists claim that less investment, lower profits from investment, and eventually lower economic growth result.

The Federal Reserve can intervene in this process by buying bonds from its member banks. When it buys a bond, it credits the seller's reserve account. Banks are allowed to lend an amount several times their reserves; therefore, expansion of reserves allows a proportionate expansion of lending. Some of that lending will come back into the banks as demand deposits (checking accounts), to be lent out again as the cycle repeats. Thus, when the Fed buys bonds, it increases demand deposits and bank reserves, the major bases of the money supply. It also increases bank lending, so interest rates should go down. Conversely, when the Fed sells bonds (debiting banks' reserve accounts), it contracts the money supply, thus driving interest rates higher.

The purchase of bonds is how the Federal Reserve "prints money" to pay for the government's expenses. The Fed's decision to purchase depends upon whether it is more concerned with steadying the money supply (then it will not buy bonds) or keeping interest rates low (then it will buy them).

If monetarists were right, the Federal Reserve could stop inflation by


reducing the money supply. But the resultant higher interest rates might send the economy into a recession. Keynesians were nervous about using such potent measures. Because supply-siders believed interest rates mattered less and tax rates more to business interests, the supply-siders were more optimistic that a tax cut could be combined with monetary restraint to increase production and reduce inflation. To Keynesians the combination of tight money and large tax cuts guaranteed only high interest rates that would bring the economy down in a resounding crash.

The Neoclassicists

The swing vote among economists was held by the neoclassicists, who shared the Keynesians' basic model of the economy but had the supply-siders' trust in markets and dislike of wage-setting unions. Representing a large segment of established academic economists, neoclassicists commanded the paraphernalia of authority (econometric models, chaired professorships at universities) needed to impress the nonexpert. These neoclassicists included some of the nation's most eminent mainstream economists, such as Paul McCracken, Herbert Stein, and Alan Greenspan, all former CEA chairmen. Their pronouncements would determine whether the supply-siders would seem irresponsible or respectable.

Neoclassicists shared the Keynesian concern with interest rates and the supply-sider dislike of taxes. Their ideal was low taxes and low spending, with occasional pump-priming if economic growth severely declined. The difference between Keynesians and neoclassicists was really a choice between inflation and unemployment, really a choice of whom to favor. Keynesians emphasized demand and employment, which favored employees. The neoclassical concern with steady prices served holders of wealth, the value of whose investments would be eroded by inflation.

Both mainstream schools, however, emphasized the need for investment to create growth. Members of each school worried because savings, and thus investment, were lower in the United States than in other industrial nations. They agreed that high interest rates and inflation created uncertainty that dampened the "Animal Spirits" (Keynes's term) of the entrepreneur. Both schools emphasized corporate investments rather than individual incentives, viewing capital investment more as the product of corporate choices than as the individual desire to make money. Unlike the supply-siders, therefore, neoclassicists (and Keynesians) preferred corporate tax cuts—particularly adjustments in the depreciation schedules for capital investment—to reduced personal levies.

Economists and the Economy

The reaction to Carte's January 1980 budget reflected these converging and diverging perspectives. To supply-siders, whose voice was


the Wall Street Journal, a budget nearly balanced by tax hikes was totally unacceptable. Newsweek and Time differed because the more Keynesian Newsweek, caring more about unemployment, was impressed by the degree of restraint in the budget.

Yet there was also agreement, centering on the shared concern for business investment as the source of productivity. Keynesian Arthur Okun of the Brookings Institution called Carter's plan "a directionless, muddle-through budget of an election year." "I wish to hell," he added, "that there was some concrete policy you were buying with all that extra money, liked a reduction in corporate depreciation rates to stimulate investment."[18] His colleague Joseph Pechman, similarly worried, felt that a tax cut was needed to stimulate investment; to allow for this, he wanted a spending cut.[19] Keynesians had begun to worry more about investment than consumption. The administration's economists were also working to restrain workers' consumption through recession. Democratic economists were deserting Democratic constituencies.

Ultimately, all economists emphasized the confidence of business interests. Keynesians wanted to manipulate demand in order to encourage entrepreneurs. Supply-siders wanted lower taxes. Neoclassicists wanted higher profits from lower wage increases and interest rates. All believed that if, for whatever reason, business lost confidence in the future, that future would be dismal. The crucial barometer of business confidence was the behavior of the financial markets. In February 1980, one major market, the market for bonds, collapsed; that collapse in turn killed Carter's budget.

Bonds and the Budget

Bonds are promises to pay interest at a fixed rate for a long period of time. Whether a bond is a good deal depends upon the ratio of the interest paid to the inflation rate. If prices are going up faster than the interest rate, the bondholder will have less purchasing power at the end than when she bought the bond. Prospective bondholders, therefore, demand a higher interest rate for their money if they expect high inflation. Conversely, the bond sellers (debtors) are more willing to offer those rates if they believe inflation will give them more dollars with which to pay off. In essence a 4 percent interest rate at 2 percent inflation is the same term of trade as 14 percent interest at 12 percent inflation: a real return ("real interest rate") of 2 percent per year.

On February 18, the Labor Department announced that in January wholesale prices had risen at an annual rate of 19.2 percent. Interest rates, The Economist reported, zoomed upward throughout the industrialized world "in hot pursuit of the inflation rate." High interest rates


were bad for anyone who wanted to issue a new bond; they were terrible for anyone who owned an old bond.

A bond is an asset; its value depends on the income it provides. People want to be able to trade assets as well as hold them in their portfolios. The portfolio value of a bond is how much it can be sold for, which depends not on the original price but on its yield.

Take a $1,000 bond that yields $80 per year (8 percent). If 8 percent is a good return, the bond will sell for its original value (par). If new bonds or other comparable instruments yield 10 percent, however, it would be silly to pay $1,000 for the old bond. Someone who expected a 10 percent return would pay only $800 to get the $80 per year return. Inflation has the same effect on values.

As interest rates go up, therefore, the prices of old bonds and the value of portfolios of old bonds go down. In theory, bonds, promising a steady return over a long time, represent the ideal safe investment. If interest rates are volatile, however—especially if they and inflation head up—the last place to be is locked into a thirty-year contract for a devaluing asset. The bond market—not stocks—was the major source of capital investment. Conditions in 1980 threatened that "the notion of bonds as a safe harbor for prudent money managers … could become as archaic as gold at $35 an ounce."[20] Capital investment could dry up. Worse, losses on their bond portfolios could badly damage banks and other financial institutions, leading to a general contraction of credit.

The bond market collapse was noticed by only a small portion of Americans. But those who noticed mattered. Economic policymakers viewed it as evidence that Carter's budget was a disaster. Economists differed in the details of their explanation, but all agreed that, if investors had trusted Carter's policy to reduce inflation, then they would not have insisted on higher interest rates. And when economists used investors' behavior to show that the policy was insufficient, investors, hearing that the president's policy would not work, panicked further.

In October 1979 the new chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Paul Volcker, announced that the board had adopted monetarist principles for a war against inflation. The Fed would tighten monetary policy and allow bank interest rates to rise accordingly. To attract buyers, longterm bond rates rose in tandem with the rates paid by banks. If market participants had believed that the tight money policy would reduce inflation, they might have tempered their predictions about inflation, therefore countering the short-term effects of higher interest rates. But that was not to be.

On January 29 interest rates on long-term Treasury bonds reached 11 percent, higher even than during the Civil War.[21] On February 5 professional bond traders, "faced with a prolonged buyers' strike,"


dumped a new thirty-year Treasury issue (maturing in 2009) on the market rather than waiting for buyers at face value (par). In response, the 2009 Treasury fell another 2.5 percent, and other bonds followed. The next day brought a flood of sell orders as bondholders tried to dispose of their devaluing portfolios. By Tuesday, February 19, the 2009 Treasuries had lost 20 percent of their value since the year's beginning. Issues from major companies like IBM were doing no better.[22]

A Wall Street Journal article on February 21 estimated portfolio losses since October at $400 billion. On that same day any hope of recovery was stifled when investment banking guru Henry Kaufman gave a speech to the American Banking Association in which, predicting continued high inflation, he called for declaring a national emergency. The markets were so jittery that Kaufman's speech immediately set them on their ear.[23]

There was no particularly good reason, under any economic theory, either to blame Carter's budget or even to panic. The bond market decline had begun before Carter announced his budget. A few voices did call for calm. Beryl Sprinkel of Harris Bank in Chicago, a leading monetarist, pointed out that Paul Volcker had only begun the Federal Reserve's monetarist fight against inflation in October, so the lack of immediate results was to be expected.[24] February 19 and February 25, Volcker said the same in testimony to Congress, arguing that markets were overreacting to entirely predictable economic news, that is, the January wholesale price increase.[25]

By February 25 panic was replacing policy. The chairman of the Federal Reserve joined the chorus. "We have reached the point in this inflationary situation," Volcker declared, "where I believe decisive action is necessary."[26] The markets made no sense, but that did not reduce the need to calm them. He recommended the nation's all-purpose remedy, balancing the budget. On the same day, Jimmy Carter told a group of out-of-town newspaper editors that the inflation/energy problem had "reached a crisis stage."[27] His and Volcker's comments, of course, contributed to the fear. The balanced budget panic of 1980 had begun.

The great organs of the media fanned the flames of panic. On February 24, 1980, the Washington Post editorialized: "The latest inflation figures will set off another wild search for a quick solution." Joining in that search, the paper contended that "if President Carter wants to move fast on inflation, he has only one lever that will make much difference. He will have to start cutting his budget, rapidly and severely—not only next year's budget, but the current one."[28] The New York Times On February 28 added that "nobody any longer knows for sure" how to slow the inflation but that budget balance had to be part of the solution.[29]

For the next few months the key word would be "expectations." By


expecting inflation, consumers and producers and borrowers and lenders might indeed make it come true; something had to be done to change those expectations. Newsweek reported,

However it is achieved, a balanced budget would have almost magical significance. "The budget has raised inflationary expectations more than anything," says Leif Olsen of Citibank, "so cutting Federal spending is exactly what we need to restore confidence and cut those higher expectations."[30]

Balancing the budget supposedly would make everybody expect better times; I balance, Descartes might have said, therefore I am prosperous.

Politicians were scared. The administration felt the pressure. Newsweek reported that "the mood in the White House … seemed to verge on something close to panic…. 'Grown men, thoughtful men are scared,' said a top White House aide. 'It's time to be scared.'"[31] "When you have bank executives come in and say, 'We're getting close to bank lines,' people get frightened," reported Representative Richard Gephardt, a leader of the moderate Democrats. "If ever there was a time in recent history to balance the budget, this is it."[32]

Within the Keynesian logic, budget balance in that situation made little sense. Arthur Okun commented that $16 billion in cuts—enough, ostensibly, to balance the budget—"will reduce inflation by 0.3 percentage points and lower the gross national product by 1.3 percent … a minuscule effect on inflation and a significant, if not drastic, effect on employment."[33] The CBO issued a similar dampening prognosis.[34]

Policy makers, however, along with most commentators, had moved beyond reliance on input-output models of the economy. They had entered a land of speculation about the moods of economic actors in which the symbolic virtues of budget cutting exceeded any effects on demand. "The problem is psychological," one administration official declared. "That's where you really have to get results."[35]

The administration moved toward a policy of (a) balancing the FY81 budget so as to change inflationary expectations, and (b) finding more ways to ensure the recession that would have a real effect on inflation. On February 28 OMB ordered agencies to prepare cuts in their FY81 submissions. As a sign of resolve, the administration canceled plans for a $300-million farm policy initiative.[36] On the Hill cut lists were being devised by everybody, from liberals David Obey and William Brodhead to conservatives David Stockman and Phil Gramm.

New budget proposals would help only if they had a chance to pass. The administration therefore tried something unprecedented: the budget would be remade in negotiations with its party leaders in the House and the Senate. For forty-six hours, beginning March 6, administration


and congressional Democratic leaders negotiated.[37] The meetings were chaired by Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, who explained that "this is an effort to develop unity, so we can all walk the plank together."[38]

There was a theme: it was a nasty job, but someone had to do it. Bargaining was painful because the negotiators included supporters of almost every threatened program.[39] Representative Brademas of Indiana protested education cuts; Jim Wright of Texas protected public works; Tom Foley of Washington fought for food stamps; and Senate Finance Chairman Russell Long resisted intrusions on the cherished jurisdiction of his Finance Committee.

The Democrats' internal negotiations foreshadowed later "big powwows"—the 1982 "Gang of 17," the 1984 negotiations, the 1987 summit. In theory, if the leaders all agreed, they could carry Congress with them. In practice, neither side wanted the blame for cutting cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) to social security. Members of Congress thought a tax on imported oil might be fine, but they wanted Carter to impose it administratively so they wouldn't have to vote.[40] They were able to find many but not quite enough areas of agreement. Meanwhile, bad news piled up: CBO raised its FY80 deficit projection by $17 billion;[41] wholesale and retail prices went up 1.5 percent in February; Chase Manhattan raised its prime rate to a record 18.25 percent on March 13.[42]

On March 13 the negotiations ended with a rough sense of how cuts might be made and revenues raised, but no detailed package emerged. That left room for House, Senate, and president to fight over details. To respond to the panic, Carter felt he had to announce a new policy quickly. On March 14 Carter promised a balanced budget through roughly equal spending cuts and revenue increases. Though he specified only a few reductions from his January plan, including elimination of the states' portion of General Revenue Sharing (GRS), he promised to submit a total of $13 billion in cuts by the end of the month. To raise revenues, Carter proposed withholding taxes on dividend and interest income (a measure that was to have a long and controversial career over the following years) and an oil import fee (which was to have a very short, noncontroversial life).

Most important for the politics of the next few months—and nearly ignored—was a decision that did not reduce the ostensible deficit at all: Carter chose not to increase defense spending. Almost all analysts had been expecting defense spending to rise far above the January totals. The January budget included underestimated fuel costs and no reaction to the Soviet move into Afghanistan.[43] Now Carter decided that budget restraint required denying further increases for defense.[44] He stood with House liberals against the tide of defense spending demands.[45]

By his statement and subsequent actions, Carter hoped that the federal


government would demonstrate "discipline," thereby calming the markets. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Board was called upon to force a recession. The Fed was asked to do its part by restraining credit. Chairman Volcker wanted to restrain business lending anyway. Aside from the generally tight money, the March 14 package added a "voluntary" program to restrain growth in loans by large banks, enforced by a hefty raise in the discount rate for any bank that borrowed from the Fed (used the discount window) too often.

Chairman Volcker was far less interested in directly limiting consumer credit. Carter, however, was interested. If consumer borrowing prevented recession, restrictions on that borrowing could bring on the slump. Volcker did not like controls in principle; he believed borrowing was already beginning to slow. Imposing controls became part of an implicit deal between the chairman and the president; in Charles Schultze's words, "Just as Carter was doing unpleasant things for himself … [alienating] the liberal constituencies, so he too, Volcker, would have to do some things he wasn't quite anxious to do."[46]

The controls focused on credit cards. Essentially, they worked by raising the costs for banks if they expanded total lending on those cards. Unenthusiastic about the idea, Fed officials allowed a lot of loopholes, expecting lenders and borrowers to find them.[47]

For mysterious reasons—the best source emphasizes the publicity attached to Carter's attacks on credit card debt and the imposition of controls, to which we might add the existing nervousness—the controls worked far better than intended. Consumer borrowing not only stopped growing but turned negative. The economy, which had already begun to falter, fell off the cliff.


"The Worst of All Worlds"

As the economy sank into a worse slump than the administration had been trying to engineer, all reasonable expectation of a balanced budget went out the window. More unemployment than planned would mean lower revenues (less income to tax) and higher spending (for unemployment insurance). Yet the increasing implausibility of budget balance would change nobody's behavior. The president and Democratic budget leaders in the House and the Senate acted as if, once they had set a target of budget balance to meet inflationary expectations, any retreat would only create further panic. At the least, the government would have to deliver the deficit reduction it had promised.

This was not exactly traditional Democratic economics, which called for spending to counter recessions. The entire enterprise was unpopular with a large segment of the Democrats' interest group constituency. Lane Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO, led labor in continual blasts at the administration's "Hooverist" economic policies. Within Congress, the Black Caucus was particularly vocal in opposing the budget balancing craze. While the rest of the leadership was committed to budget balance, Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, Jr., remained ambivalent. A good party man, he wanted to follow his president and his colleagues, but his heart wasn't in it. The budget cuts attacked programs in which he, a self-styled New Deal liberal, believed strongly. In March O'Neill held aloof from budget negotiations and publicly aired his reservations.[1]

In line with neoclassicist and some Keynesian concerns about business investment, another faction of Democrats was most interested in "productivity-increasing" tax cuts; this group was led by Representative James Jones (Okla.) and Senator Lloyd Bentsen (Tex.). Jones, a member of the Budget and the Ways and Means committees, cosponsored with Republican Barber Conable (N. Y.) a very large business tax cut (to be discussed


later) known as the "10-5-3" accelerated depreciation plan. In late February, Bentsen, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, led that group as it endorsed a $25 billion tax cut designed to increase long-term productivity. Sentiment for such business tax cuts was particularly strong in the Senate.[2] Many of Jones's group were also budget balancers who wanted to cut more spending to pay for the tax cut. The budget chairmen would have a hard time getting the business-incentive group in the same coalition as liberals.

The first step would be a balanced First Budget Resolution. That would be hard enough given the discontented liberals and eager proponents of business tax cuts. The greatest difficulty, however, was not fiscal policy but priorities. How much would be spent on the military? The defense buildup associated with Ronald Reagan actually began in 1980, driven not by Reagan's ideology but by events (Afghanistan and Iran) and the mood within Congress. If defense exceeded Carter's plan, then social programs had to be cut further, taxes had to be raised (extremely unlikely), or the deficit had to go up. Pressure for more defense spending therefore put the budget committees in a bind.

Defense Spending

A guide to the politics of defense spending requires a guide to defense numbers; that is not easy to assemble. Edwin Dale, associate director of OMB for Public Affairs in the Reagan administration, comments that at one point the New York Times ran four stories in ten days, each with different figures—"and all were correct!"

Budget resolutions provide totals for the national defense budget function. Within that function most activities are funded through the Defense Department appropriation. Yet spending also shows up in other bills: a few billions for research and construction of some nuclear weapons are included in the Energy and Water appropriation because the Department of Energy does the work; another few billions go into the separate military construction appropriation; and a few more billions, the amount of the annual pay increase, is included each year in a supplemental appropriation. Because the budget resolutions' target for defense budget authority includes all these appropriations, "defense" authority amounts in the resolution will exceed funding as shown in the annual defense appropriation act.

The budget resolution, however—to further confuse—includes separate figures for outlays and authority. Outlays are the focus of attempts to cut this year's deficit. Authority, the legal right to buy things over time, is the amount appropriated; it matters most to the military. The relationship between outlays and budget authority (BA) is particularly


tenuous in defense because contracts for development and purchase of large weapons systems spend very slowly.

The difference between BA and outlays encourages a game that favors slow-spending forms of defense: Congress and the president can vote for both a "strong defense" and "fiscal responsibility" by spending less for personnel and maintenance, which outlay immediately, while they increase weapons purchases. This game has the added dividend of delighting defense contractors. Unfortunately, buying new equipment without training people to run it is not the best defense policy; budgetary games can have perverse operational consequences.

Some defense budget disputes focused on actual operations. Raises for military personnel, creation of a system of MX nuclear missiles, or a "Rapid Deployment Force" to be used in third world crises—all could be discussed in terms of specific applications. But much of the dispute concerned the symbolism of defense spending totals as indicative of either the nation's will to resist the Soviets or the misplaced emphasis on military rather than social spending. Thus, comparisons were made between American and Soviet defense spending, between present and past American defense spending, and between defense and domestic spending, apart from what the money would actually buy.

The Vietnam war destroyed the policy consensus of the late 1950s and early 1960s, in which the two parties competed to show their dedication to the vision of the United States as deterring communist aggression. Much of the Democratic party came to see Vietnam as a hopeless effort, brutal in execution and brutalizing in effect (a description that fit the dispatches on the nightly news). Citizens protested in the streets, and issues about protest itself and national authority became tangled with controversy over foreign policy. The war was not only a bad idea, many felt, but also expensive, soaking up funds needed for Great Society social programs. Therefore controversy spilled over into budgeting. Ultimately, through ceasing appropriations Congress ended America's vestigial military assistance to South Vietnam.

The Republican right, and some segments of Democrats, insisted that intervention in Vietnam was proper. The lesson, they insisted, was only that we did not try hard enough—for which liberals were to blame.

At least temporarily, Vietnam increased congressional skepticism of both military involvements and expenditures. This antimilitary mood meant that military spending, as a proportion of federal spending or GNP, dropped steadily. Meanwhile, basic expenses increased. A volunteer army, requiring higher pay, replaced the draft. The Army had left much equipment in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Military equipment became steadily more expensive (we will return to this later). Restraint on defense spending meant a real decrease in military capacity. In the


1980s, when sentiment turned around, there was a long list of unmet defense needs.

Part of the change was due to a continuing Soviet military expansion, the size of which was widely disputed. It was not something the USSR was about to divulge, and American estimates heavily depended on the point the analyst wanted to support. But there was no doubt that the Soviets had deployed a new generation of nuclear missiles; these, it was argued, had the power and accuracy necessary to destroy the American Minuteman force. Whether such capability was important, even if true, was a matter of heated contention. But NATO allies' opinions mattered most. A new version of Soviet missiles aimed at Europe left NATO governments particularly nervous about whether Americans were willing to defend them against conventional attack and thus risk nuclear attack on the United States itself.

These (possible) changes in the nuclear balance ironically increased pressure for spending on conventional (nonnuclear, for example, tanks) weapons. No longer might we defend Europe cheaply by threatening to escalate to nuclear weapons; instead a conventional attack might require conventional response. But the Warsaw Pact had more of that stuff than did NATO. Therefore, the Carter administration in May 1978 joined with the other NATO nations in pledging a 3 percent annual increase in real (that is, inflation adjusted) defense spending. The administration also planned deployment within Europe of weapons, the Pershing II and Cruise missiles, that might balance the midrange Soviet missiles aimed at Europe. U.S. defense hawks thought 3 percent pitiably little.

Both the United States and the NATO nations had reasons beyond European defense for worrying about conventional forces; the main reason was oil. Europeans depended far more than Americans on oil supplies from the Persian Gulf. But Americans also—as we had discovered to our surprise during OPEC's 1973 embargo—could suffer from an interruption of Persian Gulf supplies. Fears about the Persian Gulf were, of course, greatly heightened by the 1978 revolution in Iran. Imprisonment of fifty-three hostages in the American embassy in Tehran (October 1979) further dramatized America's inability to intervene. Nobody knew what the United States could do if it had greater force available, but the dominant concern was defending Saudi Arabia against some sort of Iranian invasion. Carter, therefore, proposed creating a Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) of 100,000 men, with the airlift and sealift capability to move them into action quickly anywhere in the world. Although mostly a reorganization, it required more money for equipment and readiness.

Iran, and a preference for conventional over nuclear strategies of deterrence, led many fairly liberal Democrats, personified by Senator


Gary Hart (D-Colo.), to advocate stronger conventional forces. Throughout the 1970s, meanwhile, Republican and Democratic proponents of greater preparedness, including Ronald Reagan, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), and Senator Henry Jackson (D-Wash.), and a group of intellectuals calling themselves the Committee on the Present Danger had lobbied for greater attempts to counter Soviet "expansionism." Many of these hawks opposed the SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union; other senators were particularly worried about the details of the treaty. Led by Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), these senators bargained with the administration throughout 1979, insisting they would support SALT II only if concerns about American military strength outside SALT's purview were met. At last that added pressure pushed the administration by October 1979 into committing itself to a buildup greater than the 3 percent agreed with the NATO allies. Thus, when the Soviets moved into Afghanistan, Congress was already moving toward a big defense buildup, most likely emphasizing conventional capabilities. But how much was enough? One approach was looking at totals.

Defense advocates emphasized that between 1960 and 1980 national defense expenditures had shrunk from nearly 50 percent to less than 25 percent of federal spending and from 9.1 percent to 5.3 percent of GNP. The new buildup, they argued, would not come close to restoring even the defense share that existed in the mid-1960s. Therefore, it was really quite modest. Table 1 gives the data.

Percentages are misleading because they depend on the denominator,


Table 1. The Shrinking Defense Share of the National Economy and of Federal Activity, 1960–1980


Defense Outlays as % of GNP

Nondefense as % of GNP

Defense as % of Federal $

Human Resources as % of Federal $



















































Source: OMB, Federal Government Finances, 1984 Budget Data, February 1983; Historical tables, Tables 10 and 13. This is one of a set of background tables that OMB provided to those who asked but did not publish with the annual budget documents. It has been superseded by a published volume, Historical Statistics .


the size of the economy. The percentage fell quickly in the early 1960s because the economy grew quickly and the Kennedy administration, despite expansions of both strategic and conventional capability, felt the actual need for defense spending was expanding less quickly than the economy. There is no particular reason an expanding population should require larger armed forces, but domestic spending will inevitably increase absolutely (though not necessarily relatively) with a greater number to be served. Because economic growth was used to finance a large increase in nondefense spending, the defense share of government fell along with its share of the economy.

Argument from proportions was impressive but misleading. Constant-dollar expenditure would have made a better measure of effort. Adjusted for inflation, defense expenditure—the numerator—held fairly steady (in 1960, $72.9 billion in 1972 dollars; and in 1980, $72.7 billion). Expenditures rose during the Vietnam War and fell to a low of $67.1 billion in 1976. But for many reasons—particularly ending the draft and incorporating more advanced technology into weapons—the same amount of dollars bought less defense in 1980 than in 1960. The military budget had been squeezed but not so much as the GNP arguments suggested.

Trying to keep up on weapons, Congress and the military skimped on quick-spending readiness: for example, ammunition for practice, maintenance of existing airplanes, and training of personnel (which, if it involves flying advanced airplanes, can get very expensive). Liberals like Senator Hart and one-time Carter speech-writer James Fallows—not ordinarily supportive of higher military spending—therefore argued that the military neglected readiness in favor of expensive, hightech weapons. The arguments, possibly true, allowed them to merge Vietnam era distrust of the military with a concern for national security. Yet publicity about readiness problems (soon heightened by a failed mission to rescue the hostages) added to the normal demands for new equipment, increasing the claim for more total spending.

There were further pressures for more pay. Jimmy Carter had held all spending down somewhat by giving federal employees—both civilian and military—smaller raises than those won by comparable workers in the private sector. When these elements were added to a comparatively tight private labor market, the military had problems getting and keeping soldiers.[3]

Senators Nunn and John Warner (R-Va.) sponsored a package of special benefits (in addition to Carter's budget) that garnered heavy support in the Senate. The Joint Chiefs were lobbying hard for a compensation increase. In early March, the commandant of the Marine Corps dramatized this argument by sending all Marines a bulletin advising them of their potential eligibility for food stamps. Neither the military nor its


supporters, however, were willing to give up equipment in return for compensation.

The budget resolution had to give a total for defense; in no way could pressures for more equipment, maintenance, and personnel compensation be accommodated within the total the president had proposed. Republicans would demand more. So would southern Democrats, for the South is far more promilitary than other regions of the country. House Budget Committee Chairman Robert Giaimo (D-Conn.) knew he could get beaten on the floor by a coalition of Republicans and southerners if his resolution had too little for the military. Even if he won, he then would have to secure an agreement with the Senate, which, due to both bias created by equal state representation and happenstance, was substantially more prodefense than the House.

The House Divided

The left wing of the Democratic party wanted to cut defense if the budget were to be balanced. Yet such a plan would go nowhere in the full House, never mind in the Senate. Giaimo therefore chose to write off some portion of the liberals, for example, the Black Caucus, and rely, if necessary, on Republican support to pass the first resolution.[4] Republicans had never delivered as many as twenty votes for a resolution; it took quite a leap of faith to imagine that, with the Democrats reeling in a presidential election year, the GOP was going to help them pass a budget.[5] Yet he had no safe alternatives.

Giaimo first worked to get as much agreement as possible among the rest of the Democrats. Two days of private caucusing by HBC Democrats yielded some agreement.[6] On March 20 HBC approved, in principle, a package of $16.4 billion in cuts (as adjusted for new estimates of inflation) from Carter's January spending levels. They were not about to cut big entitlements like social security. The major areas available for cuts were therefore the federal bureaucracy itself—its pay, benefits, and staffing—and aid to state and local governments[7] (which, after all, were running surpluses).

The cutbacks included the state share of General Revenue Sharing, a proposed antirecession package for local governments, half a billion dollars from the CETA program (which unofficially funded local governments), a billion from a 2 percent reduction in agency operation and administrative costs, and another billion from federal civilian and military retirement benefits. Cutting the Postal Service subsidy would save $836 million.

In order to keep some liberal support, Giaimo shaved defense slightly. He positioned himself as resisting spending of any type, a stance that


might elicit support from budget balancers. Democratic votes were used to beat attempts to raise defense. Giaimo maneuvered enough votes among Democrats to join with Republicans and beat an amendment, sponsored by David Obey and endorsed by Carter, to raise revenue sharing for local governments by $500 million. Giaimo's plan also allowed a $10 billion business tax cut—on the condition that the budget still be balanced.

Giaimo's tactics worked within the committee. He recognized that "it isn't the kind of budget that liberals and city people can vote for."[8] Ranking HBC Republican Delbert Latta (Ohio), however, proclaimed, "You ended up in the same place where we wanted to end up—and that's with a balanced budget and a tax cut."[9] As a result, in final committee vote on March 26, the budget survived the defection of six committee liberals, passing 18 to 6.[10]

Committee passage did not say much about the House floor. All sorts of factions wanted changes. At the end of March the administration finally released its budget. Carter's plan looked much like Giaimo's, with two conspicuous exceptions: the $500 million in aid to cities and funding for Saturday mail delivery. The differences foreshadowed a liberal challenge. Republicans meanwhile worked on their own substitute. Giaimo's plan might be acceptable, but they would try to do better.

The House leadership wanted to pass a meaningful budget that united Democrats. Reacting to extended brawls in previous years, the majority leadership brought the budget resolution to the floor in early May under a complex rule that allowed eight amendments (and several amendments to those amendments) ranging from a Black Caucus substitute that would raise social spending by $5.3 billion to a Republican plan that would cut spending by another $15 billion, allowing a larger tax cut. The GOP plan, developed by the Republican House leadership, foreshadowed future Reagan/Stockman cuts. It

Tightened eligibility requirements for entitlement programs, especially in the nutrition area, for savings of $7.9 billion.

Consolidated categorical into block grant programs for health, education and social services, accompanied by cuts of $7.1 billion in the program totals.

Repealed antirecession aid to cities and public service jobs programs, while creating new rules for revenue sharing that would effect a further cut in categorical grants. These proposals totaled $8.8 billion.

Cut a variety of government domestic activities, for example, the third class mail subsidies and regional development, totaling $6.5 billion.

Froze federal hiring and cut budgets of federal regulatory agencies, for savings of $5.4 billion.[11]


The differences between Republican and Democratic proposals in 1980 resembled those in 1981. Neither party wished to take on the giant universal entitlements of social security and medicare. Both parties were willing to cut intergovernmental assistance. But Democrats wanted to maintain national control of policy, allowing for later program increases; Republicans wanted to reduce programs and federal control permanently by consolidating categorical grants into block grants, which give recipient states more choice about using the money. Some Democrats were willing to cut poverty programs by reducing program eligibility, on the grounds that the pain of cuts could be limited by better targeting benefits for the needy. Other Democrats, however, worried more about missing somebody who needed benefits, and they were reluctant to go as far as the Republicans along these lines. Both parties viewed the federal employee payroll as a relatively painless place to find cuts. Republicans, however, saw these cuts as an opportunity to reduce the activity of federal regulatory agencies.

Democrats saw budget cutting as something they were forced to do by the needs of economic management; they could clean out a few rather moldy programs. But, for Republicans, the deficit fight was an opportunity to redirect the course of American government. They would use greater social spending cuts to finance greater defense spending, as well as tax cuts; Democrats understandably were unenthusiastic about these objectives.

Giaimo won the first round of the struggle. He beat off a $5.1 billion shift from domestic spending, sponsored by Marjorie Holt (R-Md.) and Phil Gramm (D-Tex.), by telling conservative Democrats that defense was sure to go up after conference with the Senate.[12] He also beat a proposal by David Obey, who was supported by the president and Speaker, for a $1.2 billion increase in social spending. Most Democrats followed Obey, but Giaimo had all but 36 (urban) Republicans, many southern Democrats, and a group of budget-balancing moderates, enough to win by twelve votes. On May 7 Giaimo's plan passed, 225 to 193.[13] Unfortunately for Giaimo, the Senate had a different plan.[14]

The Senate United Means the Congress Divided

Following requests by the Armed Services Committee and Joint Chiefs of Staff, Republicans and conservative Democrats led by Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings raised Muskie's defense outlay target by $7.5 billion. To make room for this increase, they had to cut other spending. After a week of tough bargaining, SBC emerged on April 3 with a package significantly higher than HBC's on defense, lower on domestic spending, and equal on revenues. Foreshadowing its choices in 1981, the Senate committee protected veterans, agriculture, and defense programs. It


thus showed its natural bias, compared to the House, for the interests of smaller southern and western states and against the industrial Northeast and Midwest.[15]

Agreement between House, Senate, and president became less likely when, on April 28, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned in protest of the April 25 aborted attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran. Needing support in Congress, Carter convinced Senator Muskie to replace Vance. Muskie's departure made Hollings, leader of the Democratic hawks, the new chairman of Senate Budget.

The Senate's plan, passed 68 to 28 on May 12, promised a balanced budget.[16] Barely. The next step was the House-Senate conference on the resolution.

Giaimo was willing to come up some on defense, but Hollings would hardly come down at all. Late on May 21, Giaimo agreed to $5.8 billion more in defense outlays and $10.5 billion more in budget authority than the House had allotted. He thereby lost support not only from Obey but also from a group of moderate Democratic budgeters (Representatives Timothy Wirth of Colorado, Leon Panetta and Norm Mineta of California, Richard Gephardt of Missouri, and William Brodhead of Michigan) who had supported him to that point. They joined Carter and O'Neill in urging the party to reject the agreement. Republicans could not resist the urge to torpedo a Democratic resolution. On May 29 the conference agreement was overwhelmingly defeated. Ignoring the arguments of Majority Leader Wright (and the Washington Post that the size of social program cuts had been overstated, most Democrats also voted nay, 146 to 97.

The budget resolution "was defeated last year," said Obey, "and there was no great harm done. The Senate simply learned it had to listen more closely."[17] But this time the message was immediately scrambled. On a motion by Delbert Latta, the House followed its rejection of the agreement by instructing the conferees to accept the resolution's high defense figure. In his thinking, Giaimo had been right that the House wanted more defense, but wrong that a majority would support more defense and a budget resolution. Flummoxed, he called the combination of votes "ridiculous." "When you vote down one resolution because it's too high on defense and turn around and instruct the conferees to accept the Senate defense numbers, it's questionable," he understated. "Now I've got two mandates."[18] It was May 29, and the first resolution had been due May 15.

Back to work went the conferees. If it had been a normal year, they could have added some more social spending, increased the deficit slightly, and made a deal. That was what they had done in 1979, changing the social/defense balance at the expense of the deficit. In 1980, however, the conferees could not "budget by addition" because they were supposed


to be "budgeting by subtraction" in order to balance the budget. The fact, obvious to all by early June, that they were not going to balance the budget anyway, did not make things better.

The participants had begun to discover they cared for other things besides the deficit. Yet they could not—partly believing in balance, partly believing in the value of public belief in balance—give up that idea. Instead, they added deficit and balance together, arguing that following their policy preferences would balance the budget. How could two "rights" make a "wrong"?

A Procedural Revolution

Though the House and Senate could not agree on the contents of the budget, they had agreed on a potentially much more significant matter: a procedure to enforce the first resolution's targets. The procedure was reconciling the first resolution; in 1981 it would provide the means by which Ronald Reagan would win his spending cuts.

The leadership of both houses concurred that the spending cuts and tax hikes in the resolution had to be enforced. Even Speaker O'Neill, no fan of budget cuts, was convinced to accept new procedures so as to make the budget resolution stick. Now, if you can't agree on what you want to do, making agreements binding does seem premature. But, as they argued endlessly over defense spending, legislators might find some cuts on which they could agree. Majorities certainly favored reducing the deficit while making budget resolutions that would bear some relation to government's fiscal policy.

Under the Budget Act, reconciliation—a strange name for a very conflictual process—was supposed to occur on the second, binding, resolution. If the law existing at the time of the Second Resolution did not jibe with that resolution's targets, Congress could instruct committees to report out legislation to reconcile spending and revenue law to the targets. Although the committees would decide on the details of their savings, reconciliation clearly infringed on their formal authority (a committee's choice of whether to act at all is the heart of its power) and informal relationships (if the budget process could force changes in agriculture policy, then interest groups had to cultivate the budgeters). The committees had a legitimate complaint; ten days was far too short a time for drafting legislation.

During debate on the FY80 Second Resolution in 1979, the Senate could see that supplemental appropriations to cover the annual federal pay raise and costs of "appropriated entitlements," such as food stamps and the Commodity Credit Corporation, would force spending over the totals. Therefore, the SBC draft resolution instructed seven different


committees to cut projected spending by more than $4 billion. The two biggest targets, Appropriations and Finance committees, resisted. In a caucus, Senate Democrats negotiated a compromise, scaled-down reconciliation plan, but House Democrats, in their own caucus, rejected reconciliation.

In conference on the second resolution, HBC Chairman Giaimo led the fight against reconciliation, arguing that he couldn't "take on seven committees in the House" over it. In a separate vote on the conference agreement, reconciliation was beaten 205 to 190. Giaimo had argued that it was too late to make reconciliation work. Committees should be given a chance to comply voluntarily, but they did not.

Preparing for the FY81 budget battles, some Senate staffers had a brainstorm: Why not try reconciliation during the First Resolution? That would solve the scheduling problem, a big advantage for the budget committees, whose staffers, of course, wanted their own process to control subsequent action. By reconciling on the First Resolution, the budget committee might get at entitlements directly. In fact, as Allen Schick notes, that would shift the focus from legislation enacted during the current session (mostly appropriations) to that taken in previous years—thus plugging a big hole in the Budget Act.[19]

Reconciling to the First Resolution implicitly meant turning the resolution's figures from provisional targets into binding totals, thus changing the whole nature of the budget process. Although reconciling wasn't part of the Budget Act, the omission was resolved by referring to the act's "elastic clause," allowing a resolution to add to the act's enforcement mechanisms "any other procedure which is considered appropriate to carry out the purposes of this Act."[20] Where members of Congress so eager to show that they could cope with the deficit, the real issue, that they would willingly abandon old ways of doing business?

In general, leaders of authorizing, subject matter committees had the most to lose. And Republicans (who usually lost in authorizing committees anyway) had most to gain because reconciliation would force Republican spending-reduction proposals onto the committee agendas. Thus, in 1979 House Minority Leader John Rhodes (R-Ariz.) said that he considered "reconciliation so important" that he "would be willing to vote for this budget, even though the spending figures are way out of line."[21]

Most important, however, was the attitude of the Democratic leadership in the House. Normally attentive to committee chairmen, Speaker O'Neill had to worry also about his party's image. When Giaimo and other budget balancers like Jim Jones demanded that he support reconciliation, O'Neill agreed. A powerful group of sixteen committee and subcommittee chairmen, led by Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) of Interior, protested


reconciliation in a "dear colleague" letter. Significantly missing from the list were Chairman of Ways and Means Al Ullman (D-Oreg.), Chairman Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) of Rules, and Thomas Foley (D-Wash.) of Agriculture. Bolling, a close confidante of Speaker O'Neill, might have been able to swing him against reconciliation. Yet Bolling was a reformer who believed, as did the Speaker, that budgets should be party documents. He thought it was a close call, making the legislative process messier than ever, but decided it would be an observable instance of majority choice. With Bolling and Ullman, House Budget's first chairman, supporting reconciliation, Speaker O'Neill gave the complaining chairmen no help, and they prepared for a floor fight.

Both House and Senate budget committees included in their draft resolutions reconciliation instructions to authorizing committees requiring about $9 billion in spending cuts. There was little debate in the Senate about this new reform. Debate in the House on the budget resolution included a watershed vote on the Udall amendment to remove reconciliation instructions. Chairman Udall lost badly, 127 to 289. The institutional significance of the vote and the attitudes revealed in debate justify more discussion than the lopsided margin suggests. Many events in the Reagan years were foreshadowed by arguments made there.

Conservative Republican Delbert Latta provided the basic rationale for reconciliation:

When we are presenting a budget to the American people supposedly in balance, and there is about $9 billion worth of revisions which must be made in present law in order to obtain that balanced budget, can we truthfully say that we have passed a budget resolution which is in balance, without providing the mechanism, namely reconciliation, to bring about those $9 billion in savings? You know the answer as well as I do. You cannot do it with a straight face.[22]

Representatives Udall and Neal Smith (D-Iowa) provided the most fundamental objection: in making reconciliation instructions, the Budget Committee was in the business of deciding which programs could best be cut, without possessing the substantive knowledge of the authorizing and appropriations committees.

Liberal John Seiberling (D-Ohio) stated one dilemma: "If we do not have reconciliation in the first budget resolution … we have gone through a charade…. On the other hand, … the committee on the budget cannot possibly develop the knowledge and expertise to substitute for the authorizing committees and the appropriations subcommittees."[23]

Chairman Giaimo continually emphasized that "you, the Members of this great House of Representatives"—not the Budget Committee—


would be the ones to impose any instructions on the committees.[24] In other words, Budget was not grabbing power. He was right in that members could vote for different instructions if they wished. If Budget drafted instructions, however, it inevitably decided on substance; otherwise, how could it decide to which committees the cuts should be assigned?

The choice was really what kind of error to make: bad decisions on programs or an unacceptable total. Jim Jones called reconciliation "the litmus test" of how much the House cared about budget balance.[25] The budget totals, Richard Ottinger (D-N.Y.) argued, were nonsense.

The entire assumptions on which this budget was formed have evaporated…. [Yet] the Budget Committee says … the only important thing before the Congress … is to see to it that those ceilings are maintained…. Why bother? People who cannot afford an adequate diet should not have adequate diets. But we have got to keep that budget ceiling.[26]

The strongest statement of the traditional liberal's distrust of spending constraints was made by Representative James C. Corman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Public Assistance and Unemployment Compensation of the Committee on Ways and Means. He raised a basic question: How would budget constraint change the conduct of politics?

The draft reconciliation instructions assumed that Ways and Means would find $4.2 billion in revenues or spending savings, mainly by extending income tax withholding to interest income. Administrations and the Treasury had wanted that change for years; Corman had no quarrel with the idea. But, he argued, everybody knew that, politically, withholding was a nonstarter. Ways and Means would never do it. (He was right and wrong simultaneously, as we shall see!) Ways and Means certainly would not cut social security, Corman continued. Because the committee had to get the money somewhere, it would come from the weakest group, the constituents of Corman's subcommittee: "It will come from a very narrow base of people, the poorest of us, and they will be seriously affected. That is my problem."[27]

Having served in the House for twenty years, Jim Corman knew how hard it was to win liberal victories. He saw a politics of interests against interests; if times were tough, then the weakest would be shouldered aside in the scramble for what was left. How, indeed, could it be otherwise? His younger Democratic colleagues, however, were far more confident. In reply to Corman, they argued in terms that will look familiar when we meet a man who was otherwise their nemesis: David Stockman.

Richard Gephardt, a member of the Ways and Means Committee. argued that if withholding were impossible there were other choices:


cuts previously staved off by powerful special interests would, when the issue was clear, suddenly become possible:

Do we want to cut off orphan children, do we want to hurt people who really have need or do we want to pass higher user fees on people who have private aircraft?… I would like to have that debate go on in the House…. We can bring these things out of our committee and pass them on the floor if people see that as the stark choice they have to make.[28]

Echoing Gephardt, Tim Wirth mentioned aviation and tobacco tax breaks. In short, if an open argument about justice, not clandestine politics, was at issue, then the good guys would win.

These mostly younger members saw reconciliation as a matter of procedural honesty; they believed it would favor their side because they were right. George Miller of California, a very liberal member of the Watergate class of legislators, declared that he would support reconciliation because for years Republicans had voted for more defense spending, then castigated Democrats as spenders, while themselves voting against budget resolutions. With reconciliation making the budget meaningful,

Nobody again will be able to run off with the entire store…. Those people who are interested in the defense of this country and interested in it in the sense of any contract that will go to their district must be good, will no longer be able to create a deficit at my expense, and no longer will many of us have to pay for their sins.

He described reconciliation as a way to prevent a "deficit that is there for no other purpose than to protect the special interests in this country, many of whom tell you at the end of the letter, 'By the way, I believe in a balanced budget.'"[29]

Seiberling added, "We are never going to reassert priorities, we are never going to get tax reform, we are never going to get that kind of liberal democratic program that I think this Congress is, to some extent, deserting" without reconciliation! Only a process that forced the hard choice would force the right choice.[30]

Thus, a faction of liberals—frustrated by years of being blamed for deficits, convinced enough of Keynesian theory to believe deficits had something (if not a lot) to do with inflation, and dedicated to government as a way to redress economic injustices—saw a tough budget process as a means toward better policy. Gephardt, Wirth, Miller, and Seiberling were arguing that, as David Stockman would put it later, in a budget crunch "weak claims," not "weak clients," would lose.

Probably most supporters of reconciliation saw it mainly as a way to reduce the deficit. Certainly that was most Republicans' stated reason. Liberal support for reconciliation nevertheless was crucial: it kept the


Udall vote from being close, and it divided Democrats. Consequently, the principle of reconciliation was established in a nonpartisan manner, making it a stronger precedent in 1981.

The liberal political theory for reconciliation turned out to have some holes. Corman was at least as right as Miller, for the notion that the right side can be determined by clearly posing choices is questionable. Even some conservative calculations may have been a bit off: reconciliation would become the vehicle for a series of tax hikes after 1981. Some authorizing committees would find that reconciliation had advantages; a lot can be tucked away in a large package. Whatever its consequences, reconciliation was established when the Udall amendment lost on May 7, 1980.

More Economic Pressures

A major procedural change, reconciliation would not have seemed necessary without the drive to balance the budget. Nor would the politics of budget priorities have been so serious. Thus, Majority Leader Jim Wright and Giaimo both argued that Congress had to reconcile to show its seriousness about inflation.[31]

Events in the economy during spring 1980 made budget balance less likely, yet they increased both the sense of panic and the desire to calm the markets, feelings that fed the pressure to balance the budget. The March 15 economic package had failed to reduce interest rates—far from it. By early April the prime rate had risen almost five points, to a record 20 percent. Newsweek reported:

There had never been anything like it in modern American history, and even veteran moneymen stood in awe. "It's just unbelievable that this is happening to us," exclaimed a governor of the Federal Reserve Board last week, after he heard that the nation's commercial banks had raised the prime lending rate to their best corporate customers to an astronomical 20 percent. "We are in a South American inflationary environment now, and I'm surprised the banks haven't started quoting their interest on a monthly basis as they do there."[32]

Bankers and moneymen devoutly prayed for a recession but still believed that Carter did not. Time, in late March, quoted "one Zurich banker last week in a rueful sentiment that was almost universally shared among business leaders and economists everywhere: 'I'm afraid that at the first sign of a sharp recession, there will be a change in course.'"[33] They were wrong. The recession was well under way, and the administration was staying on course.

Interest rates headed up because the Fed's moves were pushing them


higher. Housing starts had already slowed drastically, even before the March 15 credit control actions. Secretary of the Treasury William Miller told a delegation of housing lobbyists that they could expect no help. Two hundred thousand autoworkers were already on layoff, yet the administration took no action to help that gasping industry whose union is one of the most powerful forces of American liberalism.[34] In April unemployment jumped to 7 percent.[35]

Economic activity dropped more sharply than at any time since the depression. In May, the recession began to have some of its intended effects; interest rates fell, and bond prices rose. Yet short-term rates were extremely volatile, falling too quickly for comfort, while rates on long-term bonds fell by only a couple of percentage points, suggesting investors were skeptical that inflation would disappear. As OMB's chief economist said, "We have been forecasting a recession's development since last July, and it's rather nice to be finally getting it. A mild recession is unavoidable if we're to do anything with inflation."[36] But it was not clear that this was the "nice," "mild" recession they had been looking for.[37]

From the left, Senator Kennedy called for wage-price controls, combined with jobs spending. From the right, Republicans increased their calls for tax cuts. Carter's image as a waverer caused his aides to favor steadfastness for its own sake. Noting the high interest rates on long-term bonds, administration economists feared granting the markets further excuses to believe that inflation would accelerate. Its judgments of both politics and policy led the administration to stick to belt-tightening.

Due to lower tax revenues and higher entitlement benefits caused by the recession, the budget could not be balanced. As early as May 5, congressional budget experts knew there would be a deficit.[38] Yet, like the Holy Grail, the mythical balance was still pursued. Comments from politicians and media suggested the point was in the quest itself. The Washington Post editorialized that a balanced budget as such was less important than the government display of restraint it symbolized.[39] Senator Byrd acknowledged on May 3 that economic changes might make balance impossible, cautioning that "the worst thing we can do is jump ship too soon."[40] "As long as inflation remains so high," the Wall Street Journal quoted a treasury official on May 2, "the financial markets will be watching our moves very carefully. Right now there is very little anyone can do to break out of the balanced budget mode."[41] Promise had become more important than performance.

Economic policy attempted to manipulate the financial markets through symbolic action that everyone could see through, but it didn't work any better with the voters than with the markets. By late March the political advantages Carter had gained from the Iranian hostage crisis


were wearing off. The public became impatient with the president's failure to bring the hostages home. In the polls Carter's lead over Reagan dropped sharply. More voters expected the economic package to increase rather than to decrease inflation, and by large margins they expected the package to increase unemployment.[42] Carter's show of resolve was losing the Democratic party's advantage on the unemployment issue, without winning compensating gains on inflation.

Ted Kennedy's weaknesses allowed Carter to move toward clinching renomination, but the blue-collar base of the Democratic party was considering defecting to Reagan. According to Gallup, members of labor union families were more skeptical than their fellow citizens about Carter's economic policies. In six major primary states, nearly half the voters in hourly paid jobs had voted for Reagan in Republican primaries. In Wisconsin, for the first time since Eisenhower had been a candidate, the Republican primary drew far more voters than did the Democratic contest. In West Allis, Wisconsin, a housewife and long-time Democrat expressed the sentiments that haunted Democratic officeholders in their fitful sleep: "Inflation is eating us up, welfare is a mess, we don't have any power in this country—why shouldn't we switch? Kennedy has a moral problem and Carter can't decide anything. Reagan would return us to this country's true meaning."[43]

June 1980 brought even worse economic news. In April the Commerce Department's leading indicators had fallen 4.8 percent—the largest drop in the thirty-two years that the index had been calculated. The Labor Department in May announced that unemployment had soared to 7.8 percent.[44]Time summarized the consequences neatly: "Business tumbles, the political fallout hits, and tax cut talk begins.[45] Because desire for a balanced budget did not fade, budgeting became even more difficult.[46]

After all the publicity about balancing the budget to fight inflation, politicians feared both the public and "the markets" might panic if they admitted defeat. "The problem," Leon Panetta (D-Calif.) explained in mid-June, "is that we're in a kind of transition where we're still hurting from inflation while we're beginning to hurt from a recession. We can't afford to bounce either way until we see what's going to happen."[47]

However we characterize their psychology, many Democrats were more scared to change course again than to stick to the present path. Republicans, not (yet) responsible for blazing the trail, gleefully criticized the guides.

But merely watching while people lost their jobs made them all uncomfortable. Congressional Democrats and Republicans therefore joined to inter Carter's barely breathing oil-import fee. Then a president's veto was overturned by a Congress of his own party for the first


time since Harry Truman held office.[48] In an era of rampant inflation, Congress was reluctant to add another price increase. At a time of increasing unemployment, Democrats refused to increase the burdens of poorer people while, as they saw it, oil company profits swelled. Neither budget balance nor energy concerns could convince Congress to impose immediate pain in a way that would affect almost everybody.

Traditional liberals, represented by Senator Kennedy, thought the recession justified turning from deficit worries to antirecessionary public jobs spending. The limits of their appeal were shown by a victory: at the Democratic National Convention in August, delegates endorsed Kennedy's $12-billion package of "job-creating" spending. Kennedy won because Democratic convention delegates are more liberal than members of Congress[49] and because only Democrats go to their convention. Rosalynn Carter identified the problem: "I don't know how [Congress] will vote $12 billion, when we tried so hard to get $2 billion for new employment, and both houses of Congress went home without doing it."[50]

Activists, oriented toward winning benefits for their deserving groups, did not have to deal with the conflicting pressures that caused many Democratic politicians to doubt the value of further spending. They were less influenced by the growing literature of policy criticism created by social scientists and more influenced by their responsibility for managing the economy; Democratic reaction caused politicians like Budget Committee Chairman Muskie to question their faith.[51]

Liberals were at a huge disadvantage because in the late 1970s the undesirability of direct government spending to create jobs had become conventional wisdom, stated as fact, not opinion. Like other major media, Time reported:

It would be costly and dangerous for the Government to become an uncle with a job for everyone. Says one Administration economist: "We calculate that to employ a single person in a public-works job, such as building a school, a road, or a bridge, costs about $69,320 per year in taxpayer money."

Moreover, such programs are almost always started too late to have any immediate impact on unemployment…. The major impact of the federal spending is to feed inflation later.[52]

Kennedy may have spoken for the heart and soul of the party; but his view of that heart and soul seemed outdated.

Within Congress, tax cuts were far more fashionable than jobs spending. Republicans liked virtually any kind of tax cut while Democrats were attracted to "productivity-enhancing" plans such as the Bentsen and Jones-Conable schemes. Even the left had conceded the need for greater productivity, believing that the social goals of the welfare state could not


be financed without it. Liberal Democrats did not reject capitalism, but they did not entirely trust capitalists. Instead, they endorsed government intervention, as a New Republic article emphasized, to "save capitalism from its friends." Liberal intellectuals, such as economist Lester Thurow and the New Republic's editors, had their own menus of tax changes, designed to encourage business to invest in ways that increased jobs.

In spite of all the tax-cutting arguments, however, the Democrats remained hesitant, for the two parties also disagreed on the kind of tax cuts desired. Factions in both parties wanted incentives for business investment: liberals wanted cuts at the low end of the income tax so the scheduled 1981 social security tax increase would not make the overall tax system more regressive, but Ronald Reagan and the supply-siders favored sweeping personal tax cuts that would give more back to those who already paid most.

President Carter's aides knew that the Midyear Budget Review, due in July, would show the economy in a parlous state. They began drafting a tax-cut plan.

Back in budget land, nobody was willing to be the first to admit that the FY81 budget would not balance. Urgent 1980 supplementals awaited passage of the FY80 third resolution, which was attached to the FY81 first.

From Bad to Worse

Delay in passing the FY81 First Resolution meant that a third resolution, revising targets for FY80 because the economic projections had been far off, was also delayed. That in turn delayed $16.9 billion in urgent supplemental appropriations for programs such as food stamps and medicaid. As the Senate and House negotiators battled over defense and domestic budget authority figures (outlays had been set by Latta's motion to instruct), each side was holding the supplemental appropriations hostage. Neither would give in. Finally on June 11, a day after a smashing victory in his primary campaign, Hollings agreed to transfer $800 million from defense to domestic budget authority. He also accepted a $300-million increase in transportation and low-income energy assistance at the expense of the mythical budget surplus.

Giaimo's vision of a bipartisan budget disappeared as the budget became clearly partisan. The House leadership backed the compromise in the strongest terms. O'Neill, Wright, and Brademas (D-Ind.) wrote to their colleagues:

Today you will be asked to decide the future of the Congressional budget process and at the same time to resolve a fiscal crisis of dramatic proportions….


At stake is the ability of the Democratic party to govern the House. The danger crosses philosophical lines. Failure to adopt the first resolution would demonstrate clearly that the Democratic Congress cannot deal with the budget. It would discredit the party and the Congress…. This may be the most important vote you will cast both as a member of the 96th Congress and as a Democrat.[53]

On June 12 the House finally passed the first resolution (Democrats 195 to 55, Republicans 10 to 140); the Senate followed.

Because few analysts believed the resolution's economic projections, both legislators and commentators widely remarked that it was a dead letter. But that was true only if one cared for nothing beyond budget balance. The budget resolution indicated a change in government's priorities, from domestic to defense spending. In that sense, June 12, 1980, foretold the Reagan revolution.

On Wednesday, June 25, Senate Republicans tried for another installment. They announced agreement with Ronald Reagan to support a 10 percent across-the-board tax cut and faster depreciation write-offs, effective January 1, 1981. They would offer the package as an amendment to all pending finance legislation, beginning with the next day's debate on raising the debt ceiling. The 10 percent individual cut could be viewed as either the first year of the Kemp-Roth plan (for three consecutive such reductions) or as reasonable compensation for recent bracket creep. It therefore united supply-siders with the more neoclassically oriented Republicans. "All agreed to take the first year of the Kemp-Roth bill," Senator Robert Dole (R-Kan.) explained, "but we carefully didn't call it that because we were looking for broad support."[54]

Reagan's maneuver was designed by business lobbyist extraordinaire Charls Walker, who had helped design the Jones-Conable and the 1978 Jones-Steiger depreciation changes. Because the Republicans were united, Majority Leader Robert Byrd feared the proposal might pass. In an about-face that shocked both Carter and the House leadership, Byrd called a caucus meeting for June 26, at which Senate Democrats formally asked the Finance Committee to draft tax-cut legislation by September 3. Senator Bentsen was made head of a twenty-one-member task force to hammer out recommendations.[55]

Byrd's maneuver allowed Democrats to justify voting against the Republican plan. They could say that they wanted a better tax cut rather than no reduction. Reagan reacted with mockery:

Yesterday I urged the Congress to enact an immediate tax cut … to come to grips with the country's desperate economic decline. Today the Democrats in the Senate answered. Their pitiful response: "We need a study, a task force." What are they waiting for? And where have they been all these


months? What do the Democratic leaders expect to learn … that millions of American families don't already know?[56]

Explaining the Senate's quick move, Richard Bolling said it proved "how desperately upset the Democrats are. This looks like one of those elections when the Democrats are terrified and the Republicans sense the kill.[57]

As the recession grew, major Democratic economists joined the tax cut chorus. Otto Eckstein said that "it would be the extreme of irresponsibility and the worst economic policy since the 1930s Depression to let taxes increase at the rate planned."[58] Walter Heller argued for a $30-billion cut, proclaiming that "that $30 billion isn't going to begin to be inflationary."[59] These Keynesians had begun to regain their bearings. Yet other opinion leaders went on opposing tax cuts. The Washington Post called them "a subject for next year…. Most people would welcome lower taxes, but for a great many Americans this summer a drop in interest rates is far more urgent."[60] Bankers, including New York Federal Reserve President Anthony Solomon, agreed. "Good politics," Time "commented of Reagan's plan, "does not necessarily make good economics."[61]

At a June 28 meeting of his economic team, Carter reaffirmed his hard line against tax cuts. He reports in his diary that "lenders of the key financial institutions on Wall Street … had liked the budget and had not recommended any income tax reductions for 1980. They had expressed a preference for a moderate tax cut in 1981 of $20 or $30 billion at most—provided our anti-inflation program continued to work."[62] He wanted to maintain "public confidence in our commitment to maintain discipline and fiscal restraint."[63] When their Midyear Economic Review came out, it predicted 9 percent unemployment by the end of 1980. Yet Carter rejected his own economists' proposals for a $25-billion tax cut in 1980.[64]

Speaker Tip O'Neill heard no "hue and cry for a tax cut" in the House. He and Giaimo opposed any action before the election; Congress would Christmas-tree the bill (cover it with a variety of benefits), and members probably could not resolve disagreements among House, Senate, and administration in the short time remaining before recess anyway. In spite of their skepticism, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Russell Long (D-La.) (who had his own doubts) accepted his caucus's instruction to report out a cut. The Democrats were not only terrified but divided.[65]

Through a combination of bad luck and bad timing, the president and his colleagues were heading for an election with disaster looming on all economic fronts: unemployment, inflation, and the budget deficit. "That's not a very inviting picture they paint for us," commented Representative Jones. He felt his constituents would willingly forego a tax


cut in order to balance the budget. Now they would have neither. "This," he said, "is the worst of all worlds."[66]

Voters generally agreed with Jones. Carter's approval rating in the polls had turned mildly negative by early March, then drifted lower, and in mid-July bottomed out at 21 percent—even lower than Richard Nixon's in the darkest days of Watergate. The following list shows the demise of Carter in opinion polls.




February 1–4



March 7–10



March 28–31



May 2–5



May 30–June 2



June 27–30



July 14–25



By early August, 52 percent of Democrats wanted the party to select somebody other than Carter at its convention. "Never before," said Gallup, "in the almost fifty years of Gallup polls has an incumbent president entered a convention with less grassroots support from his own party."[67] Democratic officeholders, unhappy about campaigning with Carter around their necks, began an "Anybody but Carter" movement. Out of sixty marginal House districts, Carter, who had carried twenty-two of them in 1976, was leading the polls in only four in 1980. The difficulty, said David Obey, was that "we'd be in as bad shape or worse shape" with Kennedy at the head of the ticket.[68] In Gallup's polls Kennedy was even less popular than Carter, and Reagan had big leads over Muskie and Mondale. There was nobody but Carter, and Carter looked like a loser.

The Election, the Economy, and a Fragmented Budget

The Democrats still controlled the government, so they still had to govern. Budget deadlines required that they unite to pass the reconciliation and appropriations bills. Having disposed of the First Resolution, they still had to deal with the Second Resolution. Because the second set required binding targets, they would have to admit they would fail to balance the budget, cut spending further, ignore the resolution, lie, or all of the above. In the meantime, the economy would continue to gyrate so wildly as to confuse everyone about what good policy might be.

Carter had to find an economic plank on which to campaign. Because he did not wish to change his policy, he repackaged it as an emphasis on the "future"—including future tax cuts. One aide described Carter's strategy as "the past is behind us—may it rest in peace."[69] His tax plan


emphasized business tax cuts (55 percent), and personal cuts took the form of a social security tax offset. Some observers remarked on the irony of Republicans emphasizing personal and Democrats emphasizing business tax cuts, but the Wall Street Journal correctly argued that the "basic concept" for Democrats remained "that the government must play the central role in managing economic change."[70]

Carter tried to exploit fears of the Republican platform's "Kemp-Roth" tax cut, which called for 10 percent cuts in income tax rates over three successive years. Kemp-Roth seemed to many a dangerous experiment that risked inflationary budget deficits. The Reagan campaign tried to blunt fears of such deficits by issuing projections that showed budget balance largely by assuming that inflation continued.[71] (If that sounds strange, you're right. It was strange but important; see Chapter 4). Skepticism remained.

Senate Democrats were torn between the commonsense notion that voters were hurting and would like a tax cut and the contrasting considerations: it would help nobody to get into a fight with their own president; the public was worried about deficits; House leaders would side with Carter; and the Senate's budget-balancers, led by Hollings, still opposed a tax cut. At a meeting of the party caucus, Byrd reversed course again, siding with Hollings and the president rather than fighting Carter just before the election. The party decided to have no votes on either tax cuts or a second budget resolution until after the election. The House had already decided not to admit the unbalanced budget until then.

Senator Moynihan swore that his party had just blown five or six Senate seats; and Senator Long never forgave Byrd for preventing the vote for a tax cut.[72] Yet the opponents of tax cuts could argue that they were being responsible, for the economy seemed to have zigged again.[73] The leading indicators began to rise sharply in June, as did retail sales.[74] Arguments could be made (and were) for any economic prediction.[75]

But economists, as Alfred Malabre of the Wall Street Journal reported on October 1, could not even say if the recession was over. "Some say yes. Some say no. And some, a cheerful few indeed, say there hasn't been a recession at all this year." And the politicians were supposed to know what the economy would do next.

Having contracted at an annual rate of 10 percent in the second quarter of 1980, the economy, we can see now, turned around and expanded at a rate of 2.4 percent in the third quarter. Although no one can say for sure what happened, the most plausible story centers on the Federal Reserve's monetary policy.

The economy collapsed so suddenly at the end of March that all but the most hardened inflation-fighters at the Fed were concerned. They had been trying to slow the growth of the money supply in order to (a)


seem to be following monetarist prescriptions to control inflation, thereby making monetarists in the markets happy; and (b) raise interest rates enough to provoke recession. Interest rates had gone through the roof, then the money supply had begun to shrink. It shrank by 4 percent in six weeks. Maybe people were paying off debts or maybe they were putting their money in long-term accounts. But whatever they were doing, money was disappearing from the checking accounts where it serves as the medium of exchange.

"The Federal Reserve," William Greider writes, "had not intended anything like this."[76] The question was, was it a blip or real? If the Fed ignored the monetary numbers, saying they were a blip, it would (a) lose the support of monetarists; (b) lose the political cover Volcker gained by claiming to be monetarist, which had allowed him to drive up interest rates while disclaiming that as his goal; and (c) risk what Board Governor Charles Partee called "the Big Mistake."[77] If the numbers were real, ignoring them could mean a depression.

Unwilling to take all those risks, Volcker convinced his divided colleagues to step on the monetary accelerator. The aggregates responded sluggishly. Within ten weeks after the Fed put the pedal to the floor, the short-term price of money was cut roughly in half. For good measure the Fed, with Carter's approval, dismantled its consumer credit controls, which no longer seemed necessary to bring on a recession. Suddenly the economy leaped back on its feet; the inflation and money-supply numbers soon followed. The Fed, it seemed, had lost control.[78]

There was a lesson and a consequence. The lesson was that nobody knew what was going on. An October survey of business executives showed they had no better vision than the economists.[79] Even the governors of the Federal Reserve were confused. The consequence was that the Fed's governors determined not to repeat their "mistake." They decided to squeeze hard, damning both the election or any puzzling numbers.[80] Interest rates returned to 13 to 14 percent by late September, confounding analysts.[81] They would go much higher.

In Congress, members had to decide on specific policies. Budget resolutions don't spend money; appropriations do. Budget resolutions don't cut programs; reconciliation might. Congressional action on spending and taxing while rushing toward a preelection recess revealed three patterns that would recur continually in later years.

The First Resolution didn't determine the balance of defense and domestic spending. Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.), chairman of Senate Appropriations, tried to move $4 billion from defense to social within his committee. He failed only because he didn't have the votes. The prodefense mood controlled action while House Appropriations and


then Senate Appropriations raised previous bids on the military. "The only debate on the committee's overall funding recommendation," the Congressional Quarterly reported about the House vote on September 16, "was on whether the increase was large enough."[82]

By then Congress was running short on time; the fiscal year would begin on October 1, Congress would recess on October 4. Only two of thirteen appropriations had passed, so Congress needed a massive continuing resolution (CR). Traditionally, continuing resolutions bridged the gap between expiration of one year's appropriation and enactment of a new one by allowing agencies to continue activities at the previous fiscal year's levels. On September 16, however, Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) proposed breaking with the tradition. Because both policy and inflation meant the FY81 defense figures would be much higher than FY80 figures, the Senate would not act before recess, and the election would delay action for another two months. Therefore, Dicks proposed including the House's FY81 defense numbers in the CR. Thus, the resolution was not at all a stopgap but a new grant of authority. House leadership demanded equal treatment for domestic programs, but the Senate disagreed. The CR, once a housekeeping device, became a battleground over policy and priorities.[83]

The confrontation was made more serious because, earlier in the year, the attorney general had ruled that most agencies would be unable to operate if their appropriations authority lapsed. If the CR did not pass, agencies would have to shut down.[84] The prospect of a government shutdown could encourage either settlement or hostage taking. Bogged down over a rider restricting federal funding of abortions, conferees did not settle until late on October 1. Only defense was funded at FY81 levels,[85] revealing again Congress's tilt toward military, against social, spending.

The battle over policy on the formula for the CR prefigured developments under Reagan. The CR would become one of two vehicles for omnibus action on the budget; the other was reconciliation.

Senate committees quickly complied with their reconciliation instructions. On July 23 a package of spending cuts passed, hitting the targets though cheating a few: some cuts were temporary; others involved changing the dates of payments; Senate Finance and assorted other committees added some sweeteners to the package of revenue increases.

Reconciliation meant cutting people, which was politically difficult. Members hoped that by packaging lots of cuts no group could claim to be singled out; thus, the total would make enough of a dent in the deficit that members could say they had to support the bill. House leaders wanted a closed rule on the package, forbidding amendments, so that


cuts would not be subjected to individual votes. The closed rule, by allowing the sweeteners Republicans wanted a chance to cut, also gave Democrats on the committees some stake in an unpleasant process.

The rule therefore was crucial. Unfortunately the leadership nearly lost control of the Rules Committee, which by 8 to 7 (all five Republicans united with three Democrats) allowed a separate vote on one of the biggest cuts, a reduction in civil service pensions.[86] The leaders held the rule to that one amendment, however, and then made the floor vote on the rule a party matter. They won, with only fourteen Democrats defecting. They then lost on civil service pensions (seemingly proving the point that members were more likely to vote for cuts if they were not singled out) before the whole package passed easily. All representatives wanted to appear thrifty.

The bill then had to go to conference, where its unprecedented breadth required more than a hundred conferees. Disputes had to be settled over (to name only the most important) civil service pension COLAs, medicare and medicaid provisions, child nutrition, mortgage subsidy bonds, and the windfall profits tax.

October was spent campaigning. The public hesitated, torn between the devil whose performance it knew and disliked and the devil whose words were vaguely disquieting. Exploiting the uncertainty about Reagan's foreign policy and tax cuts, Carter drew close in the polls. But in the climax of the campaign—the debate just before the election—Reagan managed to quell many doubts. An expected close election turned into a landslide. Most dramatically, Republicans captured the Senate, as a covey of liberals in fairly conservative states fell to defeat. Democratic senators had had good reason to be jittery.

Lame Ducks

The Democrats returned to Washington licking their wounds and joking about being an endangered species. The prospect of a Republican president and a Republican Senate changed everybody's judgment about the value of delay: suddenly Republicans saw no reason to hurry, and Democrats saw delay as irresponsible.[87] Yet, because everybody was looking forward to January, both sides indulged in political maneuvers to inconvenience the other in the coming battles. The second resolution, which had the least direct effect on policy, was occasion for the greatest level of posturing.

House Democrats produced a resolution that admitted a deficit of $25 billion, but they managed that low figure only by reducing estimated spending by 2 percent across the board. Chairman Giaimo explained


that the incoming president had claimed he could find so much in cuts from "waste, fraud, and abuse"; the Democrats were just taking him at his words.[88] In a very rushed conference, Senate negotiators accepted the House revenue figure and agreed on spending numbers even though their reasons differed.[89]

The Post called the second resolution a fake. Senator Henry Bellmon (R-Okla.) noted that appropriations already in the pipeline were likely to exceed the "binding" resolution's totals by about $10 billion.[90] Senator William Armstrong (R-Colo.), in the spirit of the holiday season, called it a "turkey." Hollings claimed that the budget would have been balanced save for vitally necessary increases in defense spending. "Now that he has landed as Pilgrim Armstrong on the shores of leadership, and he gets this turkey," Hollings added, "I want to see how he carves it."[91]

Reconciliation conferees projected a deficit reduction of $8.2 billion. They also added reauthorizations of two child nutrition programs to the package. "I am deeply disturbed," Barber Conable commented, "that [reconciliation] seems to have become a new mechanism for holding the government hostage, agglomerating a lot of very important substantive issues … and being accepted only because we are under great fiscal pressure at this point in our budget process."[92] He and the Republicans, of course, would not think of doing such a thing—unless they could control it. Whatever their objections, members of both parties agreed with Delbert Latta that a vote against the reconciliation report was a "vote for $8.2 billion more deficit for fiscal 1981.[93] The conference agreement passed overwhelmingly on December 3.

Without the 1980 reconciliation as precedent, committing Democrats to the procedure, that of 1981 might not have occurred. The experience of 1980 also foreshadowed the rules battles, scorekeeping problems, and rider vulnerability that would make reconciliation a mixed blessing for budgeters.

Only the appropriations—most of the government—remained. Defense was settled fairly easily. Liberals knew they would do even worse in the next Congress, so they did not fight too hard. Conservatives wanted to get the money out to the military as soon as possible, returning for more in supplemental appropriations.[94] On December 5 Congress passed a $159.7 billion Department of Defense (DOD) appropriation, the major part of a 9 percent real increase in budget authority for the military,[95] the biggest peacetime increase in history to that point.

Congress faced two obstacles to passing the other appropriations: conflict over various riders, especially busing, and the Second Resolution's binding spending limits, which included a 2 percent cut Reagan was supposed to find. Congress was not about to redo all bargaining and


decisions that had led to the appropriations bills passed and pending. Either the last one or two bills considered would be out of order, or Congress would have to waive the resolution that it had just passed.

Congress avoided all these choices by wrapping the last few bills in a continuing resolution that expired on June 5. Lopping off the last four months of the year meant that total authority was under the budget limits, but that everybody could spend at the desired rate until June 5, at which point they would think of something. Clever as this solution was, it had a problem. The CR became an immensely tempting target for nonbudgetary riders. Once again, the government nearly ground to a halt as the House and Senate battled over the CR's provisions.

On December 1, House Appropriations reported out a simple bill by voice vote. Chairman Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.) managed to keep all but a few amendments off the draft, which provided for funding levels at the rates mandated in the most recent congressional action, expiring June 5. This bill, H.J.Res. 637, passed the House on December 3. Senate Appropriations then tacked on dozens of amendments. On the floor, the Senate removed two of the Christmas tree's ornaments: senators excluded the offending busing rider (that forbade using Justice Department resources for lawsuits that might lead to court-ordered school busing for desegregation[96] because conservatives, led by Senator Jesse Helms (D-N.C.), were convinced that in January the new president would be on their side;[97] the second exclusion was the senators' own pay raise.

Congressmen, comparing themselves to other high-powered lawyers and assuming extraordinary expenses (like two homes), feel underpaid. Voters, almost all of whom make much less, disagree. Therefore, members who want more compensation go through exceedingly complex maneuvers to get it, while other members, wishing to curry favor with voters, keep challenging such maneuvers. The issue affects the entire top level of the civil service because members keep bureaucrats' salaries at a level ("cap") below their own. As lower levels receive raises, they bump into the cap; thus civil servants holding different positions in the hierarchy end up with the same salaries.

Senate Appropriations took the opportunity of CR debate to raise the cap on a voice vote, allowing a $10,000 raise for members of Congress and raises for more than 30,000 federal executives. Given the public's intense distaste for congressional pay increases, on the Senate floor, in a recorded vote, senators reimposed the pay cap, 69 to 21.[98] Having pleased the public (they hoped) by attacking themselves, the senators turned around and hung many more baubles on the holiday tree (beetle eradication, a Baltimore Harbor, hurricane disaster relief, etc.). Thus decorated, the CR was passed on December 11 and sent to conference.[99]

The pay raise returned in the conference agreement, which slipped


through the House on a voice vote. But the Senate removed the raise, sending the CR back to conference. The House in turn passed a new CR (H.J.Res. 644) that included neither the pay raise nor the dozens of Senate amendments to the original CR (H.J.Res. 637). Chairman Whitten told the senators to take their pick: a bountiful Christmas tree including the pay raise or a scrawny, sparsely-decorated one.[100] The Senate amended H.J.Res. 644, removing the House's limited decorations and giving the House a choice between the Senate's bountiful tree, without a pay raise, or a totally bare tree.

Now there were two CRs in conference along with many irritated legislators. "There ain't gonna be no pay raise," said Senate Minority (soon to be Majority) Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.).[101] At the last moment, in the early morning of December 16, conferees agreed to a CR with only a very few, noncontroversial amendments. That was roughly where Chairman Whitten had begun on December 1. The final battle was a fitting conclusion to 1980: neither side felt the result was worth the struggle to get it.

There They Go Again

Congress had more or less completed its work. Democrats prepared to abandon power.[102] President Carter devised a budget that, like its predecessor, tried to lower deficits with higher taxes. This plan was ignored, however, rather than scorned, as Democrats and Republicans awaited the new administration's budget revisions.

Reagan's administration was slowly taking shape, choosing its members and debating political strategy.[103] Believing in crisis and/or seeing crisis as opportunity, the incoming government began planning a quick effort to cut taxes and domestic spending. Speed was required to exploit the new president's normally short honeymoon period with Congress. The financial markets had to be reassured. "The main thing is to start and to start drastically and dramatically," explained Caspar Weinberger, who headed the transition team on the budget. "I think it's absolutely essential to send a signal, not only to the U.S. but to the world, that the new U.S. government is firmly committed to fighting inflation and to restoring the strength of the American economy."[104]

Preparing signals of resolve and of public faith in order to meet the nation's (and now the world's) expectations, Reagan's group, like Carter's, set itself up for judgment by a standard, market behavior, only dubiously related to anything it did. Unlike the outgoing administration, Reagan could hope for emotional support from business interests. "Reagan is a businessman's populist," commented Democratic banker Felix Rohatyn. "Under the Carter Administration they considered themselves


the whipping boys, over regulated and over-Naderized. Now they all see a better climate coming." Business reacted to the election with a burst of optimism that sent stocks up forty-nine points in eight trading days while setting a record for volume.[105] The question was, would such happiness counter the effects of real variables, especially interest rates, which the Federal Reserve was driving to new heights in its war against inflation? At the end of 1980, the prime rate hit 21.5 percent. A better climate might be coming, but only rain, wind, and lightning were to be seen.

As Ronald Reagan's presidency came to an end in 1988, common rhetoric about the budget sounded like the story that began with Reagan's election: Reagan's military buildup created a struggle over priorities; Reagan's tax cuts produced deficits that gave financial markets the jitters; David Stockman dreamed up a new procedure, reconciliation, to package cuts in domestic spending. Reagan certainly would take the military buildup and deficits to extremes. Although some tax cut was inevitable, the massive cut in 1981 would not have happened without him. Yet the whole story of Reagan's presidency makes no sense if we forget what came before.

It matters that the military buildup and reconciliation preceded Reagan because otherwise one could not explain why, in 1981, the Speaker allowed reconciliation to happen with so little fight over defense. Attitudes within Congress, shaped by events (like Afghanistan) and beliefs (liberals' idea of how government should run) that were entirely separate from Reagan's beliefs and strategies, allowed his victories. Events were already moving his way.

The 1980 panic over deficits puts much of our story into perspective. It should make us realize that no one knew what the economy was doing; uncertainty would dampen skepticism about Reagan's implausible sounding theories. It helps explain why Democrats basically went along with the goal, though not the programmatic details, of spending reduction in 1981. It should tell us that, while Democrats were trapped partly by their own opportunism into a position of attacking deficits after Reagan's ballooned, they had already been pushed in that direction by a large segment of their party, including the economists who once had rationalized a prospending bias.

Most important, the near-unanimity among organs of respectable opinion that the budget had to be balanced to stop inflation should give us pause. This was the first of many wrong arguments about expectations; the new administration had its own fantasies. Being wrong is not so bad. Being wrong and scornful of those who don't conform to a false standard is. Being wrong and ashamed of yourself for not living up to the false standard is even worse. The Democrats' failures to "control" the budget began the cycle of politicians losing self-confidence because


of the deficit. They began one unique aspect of budget politics in the 1980s: the political center, the voices of "responsibility," would be most upset with the status quo.

This crisis of confidence was an opportunity for the new president, a man whose vision of political economy was very different from respectable opinion.


Preparing for the Reagan Revolution

In a landslide the might of the electorate in a democratic order appears in a most spectacular fashion. The people may not be able to govern themselves but they can, through an electoral uprising, throw the old crowd out and demand a new order, without necessarily being capable of specifying exactly what it shall be. An election of this type may amount, if not to revolution, to its functional equivalent .

V. O. Key described a landslide election as one in which the incumbent party is rejected by a heavy plurality, losing votes among virtually all segments of the populace.[1] Reagan's victory, like those of Eisenhower in 1952 and of Roosevelt in 1932, was a classic illustration of the type. Carter lost support in every demographic category, except blacks, and in every region of the nation. As Key suggests, however, a landslide that seems to demand a new order does not necessarily convey its own explanation of what the new order should be.

Politicians cared about what the vote meant for two reasons: First, if the public actually wanted something in particular and the politicians opposed it, defiance could lead to disaster in the next election. Second, the ethos of American politics proclaims that the popular will (so long as it does not contradict the Constitution) is to be enacted into law. Accordingly, presidents always claim that election gives them a "mandate" to do something or other, a moral authority derived from their selection by the whole people, after a grueling and nearly endless campaign. What is the point of all that hoopla and agony if the people, in choosing a president, do not choose what their government is to do?

Although fully aware of the reasons why an election generally cannot be viewed as a referendum on specific issues—voters can oppose a candidate's preferences on most issues and still prefer him for other reasons[2] —politicians are loath to oppose a president immediately after his election, unless his proposals are clearly off the popular map. Even if they think his policies unpopular, they are inclined to let him prove it. As Tip O'Neill put it soon after the election, "We're going to cooperate with the President. It's America first and party second…. We're going to give 'em enough rope. They can use it either to herd cattle or to make a mistake."[3]


Accordingly, while opponents hesitate, the president's allies work to identify all sorts of detailed proposals with the popular will. Soon after the election, for example, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, published a comprehensive set of proposals, Mandate for Leadership, discussing mostly issues about which the average citizen would have no opinion.[4] Somehow, political actors had to decide in what sense the public had been demanding the kinds of changes proposed by the Foundation. Politicians, like academics, therefore pored over the entrails of Jimmy Carter's sacrifice, searching for signs. For guidance they also looked to candidate Reagan's speeches, polling data, and results in the congressional election. Let us do the same.

Not a Mandate But an Opportunity

As in virtually any election, poor people, blue-collar workers, union members, the less educated, and racial minorities were more likely to vote Democratic than were white, middle- and upper-middle-class citizens. In a less typical result that caused much speculation, women were less pro-Reagan than were men. Almost all demographic groups preferred Reagan, voting Republican far more than in 1976.[5] Although these results suggested that the new administration would be less supportive of affirmative action, antipoverty proposals, and job programs than had its predecessor, they did not suggest that voters expected Reagan to attack unions, the poor, and the variously disadvantaged. Otherwise, all these groups (always excepting blacks, who were to have rather serious problems with the new president) would not have moved toward the Reagan camp.

Because election returns themselves cannot convey their own meaning, we must look to polls to see what voters expected when they voted Republican. More than anything else, the election demanded some action about the economy. Everybody wants less inflation and less unemployment; in fact, Table 2 reveals those as the two most common reasons for the vote—followed by budget balance. Foreign policy issues trailed badly. The heralded "social issues" emphasized by the "Moral Majority"—at least as symbolized by the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion—were mentioned by only 7 percent of respondents. Perhaps more telling, the "Needs of Big Cities," items that would tap the concerns for poverty and distributional equity (and self-interest) fueling "Great Society" liberalism, were hardly mentioned at all. Those concerns were not even on the agenda.

Carter did well among voters most worried by unemployment. But that was more because unemployment's victims are traditionally Democratic than because they had faith in Carter. In fact, Gallup in September


Table 2. Issues and the 1980 Vote


1980 Percentage  of Electorate

Percentage of 1980 Vote

Swing to Republicans 1976–1980 (percentage points)





All voters






"Which issues were most important in deciding how you voted today?" (up to two answers)


Inflation and economy







Jobs and unemployment







Balancing the federal budget







U.S. prestige around the world







Crisis in Iran







Reducing federal income taxes














Needs of big cities







Don't know/none






"We should be more forceful in our dealings with the Soviet Union even if it increases the risk of war."















"Cutting taxes is more important than balancing the federal budget."















(Table continued on next page)


Table 2 (continued )


1980  Percentage  of Electorate

Percentage of 1980 Vote

Swing to Republicans 1976–1980a (percentage points)





"Unemployment is a more important problem today than inflation"















"I support the Equal Rights Amendment—ERA—the constitutional amendment concerning women."















Source: CBS News/New York Times National Election Day Survey, at polling places nationwide on November 4, 1980. From William Schneider, "The November 4 Vote for President: What Did It Mean," in The American Elections of 1980, ed. Austin Ranney (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1981), pp. 212–63; table on pp. 237–38.

Note: N = 12,782

"Swing is defined as the average of the Republican gain and the Democratic loss, 1976 to 1980, in each group. The 1976 vote is measured by voter recall, which overstates Carter's support somewhat (57 percent Carter, 43 percent Ford for the sample as a whole).

and the Los Angeles Times in October found that the historic advantage of the Democrats as the party best able to prevent unemployment had dissipated. Both polls showed Reagan as better than Carter on unemployment by around four to three. Voters who cared most about inflation, budget balancing, or cutting taxes—traditional Republican themes—favored Reagan by large margins.

A more interesting question, in view of Reagan's endorsement of the Kemp-Roth tax cut, was the relative weight of tax, balance and inflation concerns, because most informed observers saw a tax cut as preventing budget balance and potentially allowing inflation. Carter had campaigned against the Kemp-Roth proposal (for three annual 10 percent tax cuts) on just those grounds. By a 53 percent to 30 percent margin (see Table 3) the public disagreed with the claim that "cutting taxes is more important than balancing the federal budget." We therefore might have expected the Kemp-Roth proposal to hurt Reagan. The voters


clearly did not favor cutting taxes if that would produce an unbalanced budget.

The story is in the "if." Reagan's supporters, unlike Carter's, tended to believe that the tax cut and budget balance could be combined.[6] Much of Reagan's campaign attempted to show that they could be.

Some supply-siders argued that growth resulting from their tax cut would balance the budget, and perhaps Reagan believed it. That was not, however, the crucial argument. More important was Reagan's (and the public's) belief that domestic spending could be cut by eliminating "waste, fraud, and abuse." In the campaign's showdown debate, President Carter challenged Reagan about his plan to cut taxes, increase defense, and balance the budget. Reagan replied,

Well, most people when they think about cutting government spending, they think in terms of eliminating necessary programs or wiping out something, some service that government is supposed to perform. I believe that there is enough extravagance and fat in government. As a matter of fact, one of the secretaries of H.E.W. under Mr. Carter testified that he thought there was $7 billion worth of waste and fraud in welfare, and in the medical programs associated with it. We've had the General Accounting Office estimate that there are probably tens of billions of dollars lost in fraud alone, and they have added that waste adds even more to that.[7]

The challenger's answer in the debate was what he had been saying on the campaign trail for months; it was a prominent part of his formal statement on economic policy given in Chicago on September 9, 1980; it was his own deep belief; and it was what his advisers told him.

When Reagan promised to cut 7 percent of the budget in this manner, "experienced Washington budget specialists" (as The Economist put it) were "divided as to whether that initial pledge was naive or disingenuous."[8] As one put it, "it would be the budgetary coup of the century if cuts of such magnitude could be made by eliminating 'waste and fraud' without dropping programs of substance."[9] We have seen, however, that the public thought waste was massive. The message that Reagan wanted to cut domestic spending got through: a September CBS News poll found that 49 percent believed Reagan wanted to cut domestic spending, and only 14 percent thought he favored raising it.[10] Given the usual low level of public awareness—people care more about personal matters than politics[11] —this seven to two ratio, even with the nonresponses, reveals an unambiguous image. But people, or at least Reagan's supporters, did not expect his cuts to hurt them.

In light of what we know about general public attitudes on spending, specific attitudes on the tax cut, and the appeals made during the campaign itself, clearly the election was no mandate to cut taxes at the expense


of a balanced budget. But when Reagan maintained that choice was unnecessary, he represented his supporters.

Ideology and Reaganism

An election is more plausibly viewed as a referendum on such generalities as "less government" or "more fairness" than as a vote on complicated policies. The claim of a mandate by Reagan's supporters was really a claim to general endorsement; the Heritage Foundation report was a statement of policies that could be deduced (or so they claimed) from the ideology that (they assumed) the public had embraced in the person of Ronald Reagan.

"Reaganism" and "Reaganomics," Laurence Barrett observed, are terms that suggest particular biases and ways of thinking, if not specific policies.[12] Unlike Carter or Ford or Nixon, Reagan's ideas were clear enough that his name could be used as shorthand for them. Proud (maybe bellicose) patriotism, enthusiastic capitalism, exaltation of the individual, and condemnation of big government—these themes gave Reaganism its appeal. From the other side, that same combination animated a passionate resistance to his leadership.

Reaganism's potential appeal is best understood if we call it by the name his supporters might prefer: "Americanism." Americanism in this sense had always combined individualistic capitalism and distrust of government with fervent nationalism. Americans were defined not by their origins but by adherence to a life-style; moreover, life's superiority was confirmed by the hordes of immigrants who flocked to U.S. shores from all over the world for a chance to live it. Reagan thus had a very powerful imagery at his command; when invoked, it sounded familiar and inspiring and true to many Americans. Those who opposed him might have trouble explaining why, being reduced perhaps to a lot of "yes, buts." Yet, for all its power, Americanism was a contested creed.

Even after fifty years, the greatest obstacle to Reagan's vision of the nation was the Great Depression. The crash and its aftermath of unemployment had dampened Americans' enthusiasm for unfettered capitalism. "Leave it to business," the motto of Republicans throughout their history, was rejected during the New Deal by a very American experimentalism: people were suffering, and the government helped them. New Deal policies followed no coherent economic theory, but there was a coherent political theory: government is the agent of the people.

The New Deal liberals and their heirs did not reject capitalism and individualism. Instead they argued that the actions of government in a democracy were needed to keep the promise of American individualism: anyone, of no matter what birth, could rise and prosper according to one's merits. To liberals the great tension of American politics was between


democracy and capitalism because capitalism too often meant entrenched private power. When Reagan invoked the "American way," liberals saw a history of efforts to preserve injustices and protect established power within society by impugning the patriotism of reformers; they remembered the "Red Scare" of 1919–1920, McCarthyism in the 1950s, the constant attack on labor unions as "socialistic," and resistance to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Reagan invoked the federal system and states rights, citing Jefferson and other founders of the nation; his opponents heard "states rights" and saw racist consequences. As far as liberals were concerned, Americanism had been invoked on the wrong side far too often.

Reagan would continually stumble on one issue, symbolizing the public attachment to government action: social security. The free market was still the ideal of most Americans, but they wanted some protection.

Surveys revealed the public's attitude toward the two main strains of American ideology. In 1980, as in previous years, Americans preferred to call themselves "conservative" rather than "liberal" by margins ranging from four to three to about two to one. Yet as many Americans rated themselves as "moderate" as would admit to conservatism and liberalism combined. Ordinary Americans, suspicious of both sides, were more centrist than politicians.

Voters normally support the more moderate candidate who is safer and closer to their preferences. In 1980 that was clearly Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan was viewed as substantially more conservative than the norm, while Carter moved during the campaign from almost exactly normal to somewhat more liberal. In September a Gallup poll reported that 82 percent of respondents agreed that Carter took "moderate, middle-of-the-road positions." A Los Angeles Times poll reported that 41 percent described Reagan as "too extreme," but only 13 percent said the same of Carter.[13] In short, Reagan's world view worried a lot of people.

They did not, however, see Reagan as so extreme that they should reelect a president who had failed.[14] Ultimately, dismay with Carter overwhelmed fear of Reagan. The most common reasons for a Reagan vote were "it is time for a change" and "he is a strong leader." Reagan's victory was not ideological.

The general public did have broad preferences on public policy that fit both Reagan's appeal and the course of events in 1980. Considerable majorities believed that defense needed more dollars and that social welfare needed less, but the desired changes were modest.[15] Reagan's election thus showed a public willing to risk a dash of conservatism, considering the available alternatives.

Even if the public had not become more conservative, the 1980 election guaranteed a conservative Congress. A massive purge of the liberal


establishment took place: four House committee chairs (the first losses by Democratic leaders since 1966), House Majority Whip John Brademas, and a raft of famous liberal senators were ousted. The Republicans' twelve-seat gain in the Senate contained elements of luck; a number of Democrats lost by paper-thin margins. Yet the losers' liberalism clearly had not helped them, and the victorious challengers were a rather conservative group.[16]

In the House, the Republican thirty-three-seat gain was no fluke. If anything, the Democrats were protected by the well-known advantages of incumbency. The freshmen Republicans looked like a solidly conservative group, just as freshmen Democrats seemed fairly liberal, but there were many more Republicans. "On important issues freighted with ideological implications," political scientist Charles Jacob reported, "the possibility of a working conservative majority in the House is at hand."[17] If holdover members voted as they had in the recent past—by no means a certainty—and if the new members were loyal to their parties—another big "if"—Republicans could win budget battles by about twenty votes. The potential margin was slim but extant.

Democrats in House and Senate had to hope that Reagan, given enough rope, would tie himself in knots. Gary Hart expressed the sentiment: "I give the Reagan administration about eighteen to twenty-four months to prove it doesn't have any answers either."[18]

The President and His Advisers

The incoming administration's strategy depended on how it resolved the tensions in its agenda: build up the military, reduce social spending, "ease the burden" of government regulation of industry, cut taxes, and balance the budget. Both the tax cut and military buildup could make it hard to balance the budget. To say that social spending should be cut was insufficient; specific programs had to be targeted, which meant that specific constituencies had to be angered. Whatever policy mix was adopted would have to convince those jittery financial markets that better times were coming. Reagan's program had to portray both credible economic theory and something Congress would accept—a combination Carter had not achieved.

Round One, the Campaign

Reagan had strong biases; he wanted both to limit government's role in the economy and to drastically reduce tax rates. Given his lack of interest in or knowledge about many details, however, often the judgments of his subordinates were necessary to translate those biases into


action. The president knew where he wanted to go; their job was to help him get there.

Ronald Reagan did not like the domestic federal government. Although he had toned down his rhetoric during his campaigns, he had long objected to not only the Great Society welfare programs but also the New Deal employment programs and the progressive income tax. As far back as the 1950s, while lecturing General Electric employees, Reagan had castigated

the myth that our graduated income tax has any resemblance to proportionate taxation. The entire structure was created by Karl Marx. It simply is a penalty on the individual who can improve his own lot; it takes his earnings from him and redistributes them to people who are incapable of earning as much as he can.[19]

He viewed taxes and the welfare state as impositions upon a suffering public by Washington bureaucrats. His attitude is shown in how he explained the decline of the Republican party:

One reason came out of the Great Depression. There was a loss of confidence in the system itself. Democrats came in on the great surge of 1932 and they embarked on the great social reforms and so forth. If you look back in hindsight, you find that these social reforms really didn't work. They didn't cure unemployment, they didn't solve the social problems. But what came from that was a group of people … entrenched in government in the permanent structure, who wanted social reforms just for the sake of the social reforms. They didn't see them as temporary medicine as most people saw them, to cure the ills of the Depression. They saw them as a permanent way of life…. Now peacetime came and there was no question about the Democratic party having solidified its hold on the people.[20]

In this view, much of the welfare state was essentially a scam. Unfortunately many people had been duped, yet Reagan knew better than to base a campaign on assaulting the progressive tax or the New Deal. He would attack taxes as too high rather than as too redistributive, and he would condemn government as wasteful and arrogant rather than denounce social security as bad in itself. However, the ability to temporize, to compromise for the moment, or to adjust one's rhetoric to the audience should not be confused with moderating goals.

It is difficult even now to judge what Reagan understood about the economy he wished to revitalize. His understanding of such institutional aspects as the role of the Federal Reserve Board was limited. Reagan once wondered to his aides why the Board didn't just lower the prime rate, which in fact it does not set.[21] What he knew, he was certain about: government spending and taxes weakened the personal initiative that made capitalism a great engine of prosperity. When his own marginal


income tax rate as a movie star reached 90 percent, Reagan had seen no point in working more; from that extreme case, he concluded that people would work harder at lower levels of taxation. Disputes over timing of policies, effects on markets, and plausibility of forecasts would not shake Reagan's preferences; his decisions would be guided far more by the implications of each option for his overall agenda than by the disputed details.

The great contradiction in his own agenda involved the balanced budget. Reagan had preached against deficits for years, asserting flatly that they were the cause of inflation. How, then, was he to rationalize a Kemp-Roth style tax cut? His advisers helped confirm his belief that the problem could be managed.

In his major Chicago campaign speech on the economy, Reagan urged his audience not to "just take my word for it. I have discussed this with any number of distinguished economists and businessmen, including such men as George Shultz, William Simon, Alan Greenspan, Charls Walker, and James Lynn." All these men, former high officials in Republican administrations, made careers of influencing the policy of whichever Republican was in office. One of them, who had supported another candidate before 1980, recalled that Reagan's "fiscal policy left a lot to be desired—cut taxes and stand back, watch the Laffer Curve work. I let it be known that I was willing to help." Soon he was among the candidate's economic policy advisers. These establishment Republicans, whom we have dubbed neoclassicist, were just as convinced as Reagan that Democratic policies were in error, and in all the same ways: taxes, spending, and deficits were all too high; regulation was too intrusive; money was too loose. In spite of all the publicity for "supply-side" and "Kemp-Roth," Reaganomics, as one participant put it, "came out of the heart of the Republican establishment."[22]

The most thorough rationale for Reaganomics was provided by economist and policy analyst Martin C. Anderson, who was Reagan's chief adviser on domestic policy. Anderson's job was to turn Reagan's ideas into defensible proposals.[23] His "Policy Memorandum No. 1," dated August 1979, outlined the Reaganomics they were to follow throughout the campaign and Reagan's presidency.

The memorandum denied that "any attempt to increase employment would lead to more inflation, and that any attempt to reduce inflation would result in more unemployment." Doubts about the "iron law" relating the two, wrote Anderson, had recently "blossomed into rampant skepticism and full disbelief, even among economists." He cited a 1978 Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis study in saying it was "possible to reduce inflation and stimulate economic growth without having an economic bellyache, recession, or depression."


The memo blamed inflation, the economy's greatest problem, on the "massive, continuing budget deficit of the federal government." But the deficit was a function of revenue and expenditures, so the most effective way to reduce the deficit was "to reduce the rate of growth of federal expenditures and to simultaneously stimulate the economy so as to increase revenues in such a way that the private share grows proportionately more than the government share." Economic growth could be stimulated by reducing taxes, which were "stifling the incentive for individuals to earn, save, and invest." Growth could also be stimulated by an income tax cut of the Kemp-Roth type, with lower top marginal rates and lower capital gains and corporate income taxes. Then the tax code should be indexed to prevent the "insidious" effects of bracket creep. The last part of this supply-side stimulus package would be extensive deregulation. Anderson cited Washington University economist Murray Weidenbaum's estimate that federal regulations cost business over $75 billion in 1977—and that those costs were passed on to the consumer in higher prices.

As the economy was stimulated without increasing inflation, given a supply-side rather than a demand-side analysis, federal spending would be controlled. "It is not necessary to cut federal spending from its current levels," Anderson told his candidate, "but it is necessary to reduce the rate of increase in federal spending." That rate would be reduced first by attacking the "legendary" amount of "fraud, waste, and extravagance in federal programs." Anderson's own best-known work on urban renewal enabled him to believe that some programs were wasteful and extravagant in the sense that they did not provide sufficient benefits for the money. Citing an OMB estimate that annual waste might be as high as $50 billion, he suggested citizen task forces, as Reagan had used in California, to search out waste in all programs. Anderson also recommended a transfer of programs back to the states, eliminating one layer of administrative costs, and concluded that the recommended steps could bring the budget to balance. Then balance should be locked in with a constitutional amendment that might also include other procedural proposals, such as a line-item veto and super-majorities (three-fifths or two-thirds) for new spending, in an economic bill of rights.

Anderson's memo became an internal working document. We can see much later policy—choices, justifications, even what others considered diversionary tactics like the item veto—in that paper. It shows that Reaganomics was not something Jack Kemp and David Stockman sold the president. Absent were numbers: an argument that the whole thing could add up over a period of years.

The campaign's economic and political advisers recognized that media attacks on the program's plausibility had to be blunted. Alan Greenspan,


for example, predicted in a letter to Anderson on June 10, 1980, that Reagan would face "a degree of scrutiny to the details not accorded other presidential candidates of recent years" and suggested that the campaign should develop budget plans with detail comparable to budget resolutions. Credibility might have been pursued by changing some premises. Reagan, however, would not budge on defense increases or tax cuts. Defense was more important than the budget; "nothing was so vital, in Reagan's thinking, as the strengthening of United States defense capabilities."[24] Reagan was adamant about tax cuts. When told by some advisers that the tax cut would be easier in five years, the candidate reportedly replied, "I don't care." Because they were not allowed to change the premises (and not all of them wanted to), the advisers had to find another way to make the program add up. They solved their problem (sort of) with help from Democrats.

After estimates using CBO's economic forecast showed that the package would not balance the budget before 1985—and that assumed a smaller defense buildup and smaller corporate tax cut than eventually occurred, together with a 6 percent cut from "waste, fraud, and abuse"—the Senate Budget Committee, fortuitously, came out with its more optimistic economic estimates. Reagan advisers adopted these numbers that the Democrats could hardly attack. The Senate numbers on defense were nearly what Anderson had projected anyway; by accepting them and assuming slightly higher "waste" savings, Reagan's advisers fixed it so that the basic plan would yield a surplus by FY83.

Reagan's Chicago statement added one element to Anderson's year-old memo: a sound, stable, and predictable monetary policy. No one said much about the possibility that monetary restraint could knock the economy for a loop: supply-siders believed the tax cut would overcome the monetary squeeze; neoclassicists were more worried about inflation; and Democrats thought Carter's chairman of the Federal Reserve supposedly was pursuing the same policy as the neoclassicists. In drafting the speech, the various constitutional proposals of Anderson's economic bill of rights were removed; the point of the speech was to defuse, not provoke, controversy. Proposals unlikely to pass would not convince a skeptical public that the Republicans had a practical plan.

The September 9 plan promised "waste" savings of 7 percent (2 percent in FY81, 2 percent in FY82, and 1 percent each following year) by the end of FY85. Beyond the promise, the plan announced an even more optimistic "goal" of 10 percent savings. "If these goals are reached the efforts will be redoubled, because certainly more than 10 percent of the money the federal government spends every year is misspent."[25] How would this waste be found? By appointing administrators who shared Reagan's philosophy of spending control; freezing federal employment


(which actually had not grown in years); creating citizen task forces; and having a special transition team, directed by former OMB Director Caspar Weinberger, find "specific ways to search out and eliminate waste and extravagance." There was no word about the exact programs.

Who believed this? Clearly Anderson believed some of it, but the new goal went beyond his original caution. The candidate believed it. When we asked if anyone believed in the waste-fraud-and-abuse, a mainstream adviser replied, "They believed it's there, they didn't believe there was much money in it. The president still believes it. It was a political thing in the September speech, the only way to get balance in the plan." The speech in fact took most of the budget off the table:

This strategy for growth does not require altering or taking back necessary entitlements already granted to the American people. The integrity of the Social Security system will be defended…. This strategy does require restraining the congressional desire to "add on" to every old program and to create new programs funded by deficits.[26]

Unless inflation adjustments were defined as "adding on" to old programs, any plausible interpretation of "entitlements already granted," added to defense, meant that Reagan's 10 percent cut from waste was more like taking 30 percent from what was left.

The September 9 package nevertheless did dampen some skepticism. Although the numbers really did not look plausible, they were not impossible; the press at least did not mock the spending projections. The trouble was that to make all of Reaganomics work part of Reaganomics had to fail. Its first point was to stop inflation, but the economic projections assumed inflation would drive revenues up enough to compensate for the tax cut. Herbert Stein put the case well:

There was one major flaw in this picture. The economic assumptions used … implied 8.7 percent per year annual inflation from 1980 to 1985. This was inconsistent with the Reagan promises for conquering inflation, but it was a major source of revenue. Basically, their forecasts abstained from the supply-siders' unrealistic estimates of the revenue-raising effects of a tax cut and relied instead on the revenue-raising effects of an all-too-realistic, but undesired, inflation. The argument was as unrealistic as the supply-side argument, but it was unrealistic in a more conventional way.[27]

In other words, a policy that promised to balance the budget in order to reduce inflation was going to attain budget balance by assuming the very inflation that balance was supposed to eliminate!

The funny numbers on September 9, 1980, put into perspective David Stockman's later mea culpas about unrealistic forecasts. Not only Reaganomics but also the willingness to fudge in order to attain the good


things in the package, worrying later how it would add up, "came from the heart of the Republican establishment"—the advisers who cleared that speech. The best that can be said in their defense is that the Federal Reserve got the price level to drop a lot faster than anyone thought. A substantial part of the Reagan deficit came from the lack of revenues premised upon the effects of bracket creep no one, in or out of the Reagan camp, expected to drop so suddenly.

Making Policy

Ronald Reagan's election changed the decision-making process within his coalition because the decisions now meant something different: instead of campaign stances, they would be the "president's program." His defense advisers, no longer letting election worries restrain their arguments for a massive buildup, emphasized their vision of military needs. In response to their briefings, one close aide reports, Reagan "continually upped in his mind the need for spending more."

Economic advisers were organized into a series of task forces to define the program more precisely.[28] The tax policy task force "tried to put together a program which expressed what the President wanted, a marriage of the capital formation and the populist people." With Charls Walker as chairman, capital formation, represented by the "10-5-3" depreciation plan wed individual tax-cutting populism, the Kemp-Roth plan at a meeting of Reagan's Economic Policy Coordinating Committee on November 15. "You would have liked it," a participant told us academics, "the notes were taken by a Nobel prize-winning economist, Milton Friedman." Both the higher defense spending and bigger tax cuts meant that balancing the budget, still a key and publicized part of the economic package, would be more difficult.

Reagan and most of his advisers did not really ask whether the conflict could be resolved; instead they asked how it might be resolved. They developed a laundry list of reasons; if any were true, the tax cut would work. The reasons contradicted each other; political argument, however, is not validated by logical consistency. Coalitions for any policy, such as the 1974 Budget Act, usually involve groups with different purposes and ideas about how it will work out. A member of a coalition need not care why others are his allies, so long as he believes his own reason for supporting the bill.

By one argument, Kemp-Roth was nowhere near as big as it looked. Because inflation would drive up peoples' taxes during the years to come, most of Kemp-Roth would merely keep taxes from reflecting the rise. The issue then was not how to balance the budget but what to do with the huge, expected tax increases—fund more government spending, or give money back to the people. This argument would prove misleading


given flaws in the economic projections, but at the time no one could have known that. The real difficulty was that if Kemp-Roth were not much of a tax cut, it would do little to relieve the economic disaster that Reagan and much of the public perceived. But it also would do little harm.

Supply-siders claimed that their tax cut would produce so much economic growth that revenues on the increment of growth would exceed the loss from lower tax rates. Based on intuition and his own experience, Reagan agreed. He would tell visitors, for example, that every other modern tax cut had resulted in the government ending up with more revenues that it started out with, and "we're just convinced" that it would happen again. Aides said Reagan really did believe it, but many advisers did not.[29] The campaign's projections always assumed an overall revenue loss. Still Reagan spoke of dramatic economic change, which required a real policy change, and therefore contradicted the first argument.

The third argument, the "children's allowance theory," received less attention than it deserved in 1981. Reagan expressed it best himself in his February 5, 1981, address to the nation on the state of the economy:

Over the past decades we've talked of curtailing Government so that we can then lower the tax burden. Sometimes we've even taken a run at doing that. But there were always those who told us that taxes couldn't be cut until spending was reduced. Well, you know we can lecture our children about extravagance until we run out of voice and breath. Or we can cure their extravagance simply by reducing their allowance.[30]

Taxes would be cut first. Only by using deficits as pressure to reduce spending could spending be reduced enough to reduce deficits.[31]

The Republicans' natural good-thing-for-people, lower taxes, was foreclosed by the need to cut spending first lest the deficit rise. Cutting taxes first would reverse the political dynamic that had frustrated Republicans for years. The Democrats, until Carter, had something to offer people—spending programs. Now the Republicans could offer tax cuts.

Reagan's characterization of politicians as children or as irresponsible "spenders" neatly fit his distrust of domestic government and therefore was easily accepted by many of his allies. The argument did, however, contradict the supply-side: if tax cuts raised revenue, they did not reduce the allowance.

All three arguments—it was not really much of a tax cut; it was a dramatic change that would create enough economic growth to pay for itself; it would create deficits, but deficits themselves would restrain spending and thus eventually deficits—were blithely employed by the administration, often by the same people and even at the same time. The best way to justify the tax cut, for the many people who believe in


budget balance, however, was to translate rhetoric about waste, fraud, abuse, and extravagance into spending cuts. Enter David Stockman.


Stockman, who became Reagan's director of the Office of Management and Budget, was the point man in enacting Reaganomics. He also became the president's harshest critic. In spite of these disagreements, he stayed longer than any budget director since the Second World War.

Stockman impressed a series of influential elders who helped him in his career. They included Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a counselor to President Nixon and later Democratic senator from New York; David Broder, dean of the nation's political columnists; and Representative John Anderson (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Republican caucus. When Stockman was twenty-five, Anderson made him executive director of the Republican Conference, the House Republicans' organ for developing new party positions. There Stockman became a true-blue believer in the gospel of the free market.

After serving Anderson for four years, Stockman decided to run for Congress in his rural Michigan home district against incumbent Republican Ed Hutchinson. A staffer challenging an incumbent is, as Stockman notes, "the ultimate sin in Congress…. There would be absolute havoc with it; congressmen would be looking over their shoulders every minute."[32] Although smart enough to see the institutional stakes, Stockman ignored them—believing he was far more able than Hutchinson—for his ambition was overwhelming. Hutchinson bowed out rather than face a tough primary, so Stockman triumphed easily in that bedrock Republican district. In Congress, Stockman quickly became a conservative leader on economic policy. The Almanac of American Politics noted that he had "provided congressional conservatives with some of their freshest thinking and strongest advocacy in some time."[33] He dramatized his allegiance to free-market principles as the only representative from Michigan to vote against the 1979 federal bail-out of the Chrysler Corporation. He also became a member of the small group of supply-side theorists clustered around Jack Kemp. And, working with Phil Gramm (D-Tex.), he became a leader of budget cutters in the House.

By 1980, when just thirty-four, Stockman was a congressional veteran who, at least technically, understood how the House worked, knew the budget far better than most, commanded respect for his talent and energy, and dedicated himself to all aspects of Reaganomics—cutting taxes, building the military, deregulating, cutting domestic spending, establishing stable money, and balancing budgets. Yet he was no Reaganite. Here is Stockman's account of his reaction when told by Jack Kemp that


Kemp had negotiated a role for the supply-side clique in the Reagan campaign:

After I hung up the phone, I didn't know whether to giggle or kick the side of my desk.

Ronald Reagan?

The man was more ancient ideologically than he was in years. I considered him a cranky obscurantist whose political base was barnacled with every kook and fringe group that inhabited the nasty deep of American politics.

So there I was, thinking, "How is this antediluvian going to help us? He's exactly what the establishment needs to discredit our ideas."[34]

Stockman was a newcomer to the Reaganites and therefore not a member of the inner circle. He did not understand that he and Caspar Weinberger, or Ed Meese, or Martin Anderson, or even James Baker were not on equal terms before the president. They had proved themselves before he came on the scene. Nor did he see the president's deep commitment to tax cuts and the ways that eminent advisers such as Greenspan and Shultz reinforced Reagan's preferences.

Traditional Republicans preferred markets to government on principle and distrusted government power as a threat to private enterprise (or power, depending on your own ideology). Stockman's real objection to government programs was moral: they embodied no principle of justice, whether equity or people meriting what they earned. He saw the federal government as distributing its benefits according to power and greed rather than need. Traditional Republicans found the government alien; Stockman thought it corrupt. Because his position was based on ideas rather than a sense of "us" and "them," his loyalties were less solid than, for instance, those of the corps of economists who had served Republican administrations for a generation.

Stockman's critique of politics resembled, as he notes, one of the most influential polemics in the academic literature, Theodore Lowi's The End of Liberalism . Lowi argued that the "public philosophy" of the post-New Deal state was something called "interest group liberalism," which combined nineteenth-century fear of governmental power and twentieth-century practical need for government action, by having government cooperate with interest groups. Because groups existed to represent their members, their involvement in legislation, particularly administration, could be called democratic, and government would not be seen as coercing anybody. The problem, Lowi wrote, was that the acceptance of groups in a process of normless, endless bargaining left the political process adrift; without standards, authority could never be legitimate, for it would be arbitrary. "In such departments as Agriculture, Labor,


and Commerce, delegation of power has become alienation of public domain—the gift of sovereignty to private satrapies.[35] There are no clear rules or processes, just endless bargaining, the results of which are determined by group power.[36]

We shall return to his themes. Here, we care about what Stockman did with Lowi. His critique of the process looks a lot like that of liberal George Miller in defending reconciliation, an accusation that interest-group games overwhelmed politics of principle: "Might had become Right."[37]

In early 1975 Stockman had published a well-received article, "The Social Pork Barrel," in which he argued that

The vast increase in social welfare outlays … has created in its wake a political maintenance system based in no small part on the cooptation and incorporation of Congress itself. If members were ever legislators and statesmen, they have more and more taken on the characteristics of constituency ombudsmen and grant brokers.

Once a program was started, the "money sluice" would never be closed. Even Republicans were locked into programs as their constituents began to receive benefits and the programs were diverted from their original radical purposes, as with the Community Action Program. In the end, liberal programs were not serving liberal ends, but government grew, draining society nonetheless.[38]

Stockman's particular dislike of social programs had three related consequences. First, Stockman was far more willing to cut business subsidies and other advantages for the middle-class and wealthy than were most of Reagan's advisers except Anderson. Second, Stockman thought he could explain and justify his position to some liberals—most consequentially, William Greider of the Washington Post in interviews that would cause a great stir at the end of 1981.

Stockman's version of the Reaganrevolution was far more radical than Reagan's: Stockman wanted to change the very way that government functioned, replacing politics with justice. To change the processes, however, Stockman had to work through them; in order to push Reagan's proposals, Stockman had to play the game of assembling coalitions. Stockman had to sin in order to win the kingdom of virtue; therefore, the third consequence, he was trapped by a contradiction far more implacable than those of Reaganomics. Reagan could function without inner conflict, for the means fit his ends. Stockman would feel his ideology was more pure; yet, since he was down in the ditch making compromises, Stockman knew he too was covered in mud. That led to the agony, anger, and cynicism revealed in the book he wrote after his resignation.

Stockman believed that for supply-side policy to work it had to be


logically valid in a way demonstrable to the establishment. To Stockman that meant explaining the chain of events that led to the desired end. Because he posited a means-end chain, his theory could be falsified; because it could be falsified, he could imagine—indeed he would have—a moral duty to change his mind. Most Republican economists would settle for the right kind of policy operated by their guys; they did not insist on coherent argument about how the economy would get from the inflation and stagnation of 1980 to the growth and stable prices Reagan promised. Stockman misjudged the establishment and, like all of us, understood less than he believed about macroeconomics. But he stuck to his model, so that, when a part of it was falsified, Stockman lost faith in the whole structure.

Stockman elaborated his economic vision in an extraordinary memo, "Avoiding an Economic Dunkirk," that he and Jack Kemp sent to the president-elect in November 1980. The memo was written in order to convince Reagan to appoint Stockman OMB director.[39] The "President," the memo began, "will inherit thoroughly disordered credit and capital markets, punishingly high interest rates, and hair-trigger market psychology poised to respond strongly to early economic policy signals in either favorable or unfavorable ways." The key to favorable expectations was "decisive, credible" cuts in outlays, removing the specter of deficits.

But, covering some of the same ground covered by Anderson over a year before, Stockman wrote:

Achieving fiscal controls over outlays and Treasury borrowing cannot be conducted as an accounting exercise or exclusively through legislated spending cuts in the orthodox sense . Only a comprehensive economic package that spurs output and employment growth and lowers inflation expectations and interest rates has any hope of stopping the present hemorrhage.[40]

Any dilution of the Kemp-Roth tax cut for short-term outlay gains would be, in the long run, counterproductive. Or so Stockman then thought.

At the same time, markets had to be convinced that the tax cut did not mean long-term inflation. In order to show that the money supply would not accommodate inflation, thereby reducing expectations, Stockman recommended that Volcker and Reagan should meet, with Reagan stoutly endorsing a tight money policy. If the budget could be shown to be on a path that would within a reasonable time remove both the deficit and money growth as causes of inflation, investors would adjust their long-term expectations accordingly.

As a start toward credible long-term spending control, Stockman suggested at least $25 billion in FY82 spending cuts, essentially along the lines of the defeated House Republican alternatives in 1980. Stockman's


sense of urgency was shared by the rest of Reagan's team, though they saw no need to be so dramatic.

His outline, however, had a few revealing holes. One was defense spending, which he did not consider. Another was excluding some real big programs, like social security and the Veterans' Administration. But the real difficulty was Stockman's reliance on changing long-term expectations before any change in performance. Herbert Stein has nicely summarized the extent to which the policy adopted, basically following Stockman's line, was like the house that Jack built:

Thus the parts of the programs were tied together not only in the sense that all the parts had to be put into place but also in the sense that they all had to work. The announcement of the program had to have the desired effect on expectations. Otherwise, the monetary restraint would cause an economic contraction, which would, among other things, keep the budget from coming into balance, and that would impair the growth of production and productivity, further affecting the revenue and deficit and so on in a general unraveling. Similarly the tax rate cuts had to have the promised effects on the supply of output on the desired scale and time schedule. If they didn't the budget would not come into balance, investment would be held back, productivity growth would be sluggish, the monetary restraint would cause unemployment and the whole scenario would unravel from a different direction.[41]

Stockman understood all this. When the markets did not behave as he had hoped, he began to doubt his theory. Other advisers' rationales for supporting the president were less elaborate, less easily falsified, and thus more solid.

Appointments besides Stockman's would shape budget politics. For our purposes, the key appointees were Cap Weinberger at the Defense Department and Donald Regan at the Treasury Department.

Ironically, Weinberger's appointment drew cries of dismay from the Pentagon and its supporters. Tough talk in previous stints at OMB and HEW had brought him the nickname, "Cap the knife," though those who worked with him at OMB knew better. Accordingly, many took his appointment as a sign that the Pentagon buildup would receive skeptical review in the office of the secretary of Defense. Yet Weinberger discussed the budget in terms of defense "need," not deficits, and saw defense as a far more fundamental reponsibility of the federal government than social spending.[42] No one knew, however, what Weinberger thought the needs might be. An enemy of a strong defense, Weinberger certainly was not.

Donald Regan at the Treasury would be the point man for tax-cutting efforts; as such, his role was as crucial as Stockman's at OMB. Regan was


viewed as a man experienced in the financial markets but relatively inexperienced in Washington. Yet, Regan was no political novice. As president of Merrill Lynch, the nation's largest brokerage house, he had been a leader of the very political revolution, during the 1970s, in the financial services industry.[43] A businessman rather than an economist, Regan had spoken out little about economic theory. Supply-siders were uneasy about him, so Kemp and his allies arranged to surround Regan with assistants—strict monetarist Beryl Sprinkel (under secretary for monetary policy), Norman Ture (under secretary for tax policy), and the Wall Street Journal's Paul Craig Roberts (assistant secretary for economic policy)—who would, they hoped, guide their boss in the right direction. And Regan certainly was sympathetic to individual rate cuts. Echoing the attitude held by the president-elect, Regan believed that "the only argument against reducing the top marginal tax rate is that it would remove a penalty for being successful."[44]

Along with Regan and Stockman, the third member of the economic troika was Murray Weidenbaum as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. As the first microeconomist (his specialty was regulation) chosen to head the CEA, his appointment showed the new government's interest in making economic arguments to reduce government interference in the market. It also showed Reagan's disrespect for the economic fine-tuning under which traditional macroeconomists had been trying to manage the economy.

Nevertheless, Weidenbaum would have to sign off on the economic forecast, which meant making macroeconomic judgments. In that he was essentially a neoclassicist.[45] Bearing no direct policy responsibility, Weidenbaum would be less influential than Regan or Stockman. Even for a microeconomist, representing the economics profession within the Reagan administration would not be one of the world's more rewarding jobs.

The most important advisers are those closest to the president: leaders of the White House staff. Their job, as they saw it, was to help Ronald Reagan be a successful president. "It was not our role," an official later commented, "to go in there and try to reshape the President's policies."[46] But they would watch for danger signals in the economy, which could have dangerous political consequences. Because they were selected more for political than policy skills, the chief staffers were not all totally committed to Reagan's vision, though all, as Republicans, leaned that way. Ironically, in dealings with the media and Congress, the more centrist views of some of Reagan's aides may have given an impression that if things went wrong the administration was more flexible than the president in fact proved to be.

The three top White House aides were Presidential Counselor Edwin


Meese, Chief of Staff James Baker, and Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver. Although Meese had cabinet rank, there was no clear hierarchy.

Formerly Reagan's chief of staff in Sacramento, Meese was close to the new president in ideology and many personal attitudes. He commanded the White House policy staffs, prepared the agenda for cabinet meetings, and coordinated cabinet councils. He was supposed to reconcile differences in the cabinet, that is, to get disputes into a shape that would either allow presidential decision or, better yet, make it unnecessary. Though his authority reached into all areas of policy, Meese was more a guardian of Reagan's general ideology than an architect of new initiatives.

Mike Deaver was personally close to both Ronald and Nancy Reagan. He went to work for them in 1966; over the years he became the man, more than any other, who took care of Ronald Reagan's image. To do this he had to submerge whatever policy preferences he had; otherwise he would have been suspected of having hidden agendas. Because most Americans, indeed most of the world, were to the left of Reagan, keeping him popular meant going where the voters and opinion were.[47] Deaver knew his man well enough to judge what situations were trouble and what were opportunity. In the White House, his office adjoined the Oval Office.

Chief of Staff James Baker was an anomaly: unlike Meese or Deaver, he had no past background with Reagan. He had been Ford's campaign manager (against Reagan) in 1976 and George Bush's campaign manager in 1980. Born to the law in Houston, a successful attorney who moved easily in all the right Texas circles, from the boardroom to fishing in the salt marshes, Jim Baker was chosen chief of staff because of the skill he had displayed in various campaigns. Baker was an extremely good administrator, bargainer, and tactician. He was responsible for the political, as distinguished from policy, side of the White House—negotiations with Congress and other political actors. He would prove a master at appraising the political climate and using this understanding to promote the president's program.

A number of other aides had independent responsibility as well as close association with this threesome. Although Vice President George Bush had once labeled the Reagan program "voodoo economics," he worked diligently for the Reagan program and proved an effective lobbyist. Bush was a man of generally conservative values with a long record of service and total loyalty in important jobs, from head of the Republican National Committee to director of the CIA. Max L. Friedersdorf and his deputy, Kenneth Duberstein, were experienced congressional liaisons (the lack thereof had been a real weakness in the Carter administration).


Richard Wirthlin, the president's pollster, had no official position, but his soundings of the public pulse helped shape the presentation of policy. Staff director David Gergen, another aide in charge of making the president look good, had been a speechwriter for Nixon, directed Ford's office of communications, and was well-connected throughout both the Republican and wider Washington intellectual and media establishments (he became editor of U.S. News and World Report after leaving the White House).

Richard Darman, Baker's assistant, had the seemingly uninteresting job of ensuring that policy papers destined for the president were fully and fairly staffed. Yet, with Baker's backing, he would become a most influential presidential aide. The thirty-seven-year-old Darman was not only not a Reaganaut but a living, breathing liberal Republican, a protégé of Elliot Richardson, with experience in four departments. "His dirty little secret," writes Barrett, "was that he believed in government, including the federal government."[48] Like Baker, Darman was an incorrigible centrist whose self-assumed task was to make government work. Darman's main interest was problem solving for its own sake. Darman suggested creating the Legislative Strategy Group, cochaired by Meese and Baker, which coordinated the efforts of White House, OMB, and Treasury lobbyists and over the long months to follow directed the negotiations that led to Reagan's victories. That group enhanced Darman's influence, and he—the closest to Stockman in age and brilliance, if not in temperament—would become the budget director's closest ally in the coming internal administration battles over the shape of the economic plan.

As assistant to the president for policy development, Martin Anderson reprised his campaign role with greater resources. His forty-one-member staff included the executive secretaries of each of the five cabinet councils. Although off the lobbying track, Anderson could intervene in internal White House decision making where he saw a need.[49]

On the whole, Reagan had assembled a generally conservative and politically sophisticated staff.

Tactical Considerations

Once assembled, the new team had to devise a strategy that exploited their opportunity. Speed, focus, and maintaining momentum with a series of wins were obvious tactics.[50] Former OMB Director Caspar Weinberger, formerly Reagan's budget director in California, and secretary of HEW for Nixon, led a transition team that was also busily drawing


up lists of cuts. The minority (soon to be majority) staff of the Senate Budget Committee as well as numerous lesser party officials were also making lists and checking them twice. Weinberger, following the campaign line that the House Democrats challenged with their Second Budget Resolution, wanted cuts in FY81.[51] Stephen E. Bell, staff director for SBC, was more interested in quick action on FY82. "You can kiss it goodby," he commented, "if you let it go past three or four months. If you get down the road and Senators are getting a ration of grief from people whose benefits would be cut, then you've lost it. Suicide is just as unpleasant for Republicans as for Democrats."[52] Everybody agreed on the need for speed.

Stockman suggested that spending cuts be attached to the debt-ceiling raise that would,have to be passed in February, thus bypassing the Democratic-controlled committees in the House. But Howard Baker, the new Senate majority leader, warned him that riders work only on bills that people want to pass, saying "you'll pick up all the enemies of the debt ceiling without gaining any new friends."[53] Stockman dropped that idea, though it returned many times, garbed finally as Gramm-Rudman. The Senate Budget Committee, particularly Chairman Domenici and Staff Director Bell, convinced Senate leadership and then the administration to use reconciliation on the first resolution, as the Democrats had in 1980, to package cuts and move them quickly.

The administration took a series of steps to ensure its own bureaucracy did not resist cuts. The administration's personnel operation made sure that appointees below cabinet level were committed to Reagan's political philosophy. Carter-era employees were booted out even when no replacement was available. "We felt an empty office was better than to have a holdover," explained Ed Meese.[54] Frequent cabinet meetings were held, in Elizabeth Drew's words, to "make sure that the Secretaries were 'aboard' on the President's proposals to cut spending, and to make it clear at whose pleasure they served."[55] Advised by conservative task forces before they went into their department, secretaries participated in economic briefings with Reagan before becoming involved with their own particular business. Then, while the package of reductions was being devised, cabinet members had to support their positions—not just to Stockman but also to panels of critics, such as Martin Anderson and Murray Weidenbaum. Some more experienced cabinet members, like Richard Schweicker at Health and Human Services and Alexander Haig at the State Department, were able to win a few battles in that setting, but more often they lost.[56]

Reagan personally lobbied the people he had to win over. Having run against the government, Carter had tried to govern like an outsider.


Reagan realized that he could treat members of Congress as fellow insiders yet, when he spoke to the public, adopt an antigovernment rhetoric. Precisely because the Washington world was not the same as the one outside, the public would not notice or care much if Reagan went to the Hill, greeted as fellows the same legislators whom he was blasting, and invited them to Camp David. Members were used to similar behavior, so they saw no hypocrisy. Reagan and his staff strove to build a reservoir of personal goodwill that might help win the undecided. Before he took office, he went to the Capitol to greet legislators and to Washington parties to meet such movers and shakers as Katherine Graham of the Washington Post and Newsweek . Reagan later used those social contacts to ask for help.

In putting together its program, the administration faced two substantive problems with tactical implications. First was "fairness": how to cut spending and programs without seeming to pick only on the vulnerable. Everyone knew that most money was in giant programs—old-age, medicare, and social security—that were vital to a large group of voters and popular with everyone. If those programs were not attacked, most of the burden would have to fall on either the means-tested programs or business subsidies. To choose the former would mean taking from the most vulnerable; choosing the latter would anger the administration's political base. Because poor people paid little in taxes, save for social security, Kemp-Roth was likely to do them less good than the spending cuts did harm. The logic of the situation resulted in a package that focused on people near the poverty line. The administration, of course, would argue vehemently that a revitalized economy would help everybody. Perhaps, but those results lay in the future while programs would be cut in the present.[57] Given this inevitable disparity, the administration had to minimize, rationalize, or limit its political importance by making other factors more salient to debate.

For Carter, budget reductions had been a sad necessity. For Reagan, they were a principle. Therefore, Reagan wanted to cut in ways that would permanently decrease pressure to spend, such as either abolishing programs and their bureaucracies or eliminating federal support for interest groups, such as poverty lawyers, that might fight for further spending. Naturally, permanent cuts are more difficult than temporary cuts, preferred by moderates who disliked deficits but liked programs. In fact, the permanence of cuts was the hidden stake in many subsequent spending battles.

Above all, Reagan's most vital priority, the big tax cut, made his own party uncomfortable. He had to calm worries about deficits and promote considerations like party loyalty that would keep Republicans together.


Then he needed some Democratic votes; the administration would be helped by their opponents' troubles.

The Democrats

Senate Democrats were in the minority; they could only hope that the Senate's traditional bipartisanship in budgeting would leave them with some influence. That tradition, however, had been built upon the cooperation of Ed Muskie and Henry Bellmon, neither of whom was now in the Senate, and on a Democratic majority large enough so that it could be expected to prevail in a pinch but fractious enough that Republicans felt they were in a position to deal at the margins. In 1980, even a Democratic Senate kept pushing for defense hikes, social spending reductions, and tax relief. The replacement of twelve largely liberal Democrats with twelve largely conservative Republicans shifted the Senate's balance further to the right. In such a situation, only strong leadership and near unanimity could give Democrats much bargaining power, but those were the last things anyone could expect.

The center of Democratic resistance would have to be in the House of Representatives. Tip O'Neill had been a fairly successful partisan leader. In 1981, however, he would not only have fewer troops but also limited choices of weapons. The Speaker often exploited his control of procedure, either through the Rules Committee, or scheduling, or his relations with committee heads. Given the election and the economy, he could not use his full power. A fair, or even a slightly rigged, fight would be okay, but some such standard obstructing tactics as delaying votes or refusing to report legislation would make the party look like it was defying democracy while playing games with the fate of the economy. Throughout the coming struggle, Democrats in the House would have to ensure that the press did not, in the Speaker's words, "quibble about dragging our feet."[58]

That left the Speaker to lead by persuasion and a bit of procedure. Because Republicans had never voted for Democratic budgets before, O'Neill could expect few if any Republican supporters. If the GOP united, defection by twenty-six of his own troops would mean defeat.

Unfortunately for the liberal O'Neill, his troops included about forty boll weevils, a group of distinctly conservative, cotton-state Democrats. These weevils were in a position of excruciating delicacy, fraught with danger and opportunity. Because power in the House was normally associated with committee positions and because committee positions were determined by the Speaker and the Democratic caucus, a member who defied his colleagues too often was unlikely to win many plums.


The leadership emphasized party loyalty in appointments to the most powerful committees—Rules, Ways and Means, and Appropriations.

Suddenly in 1981 the Speaker needed the boll weevils as much as they needed him. Representative Charles Stenholm of Texas organized his colleagues in a "Conservative Democratic Forum" to lobby for their preferences, bargaining with both O'Neill and the White House. In December, Guy Vanderjagt (R-Mich.), a Republican leader, was exploring a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats to organize the House. Although that was highly unlikely, the prospect did increase the leverage of Stenholm and his colleagues. In search of better treatment, they met with O'Neill and Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.).

O'Neill and Wright tried to win over the weevils by meeting many of their demands. When O'Neill expanded the Steering and Policy Committee (the main party organization) from twenty-four to thirty-one members, he appointed three Conservative Democratic Forum members to the new slots. Conservatives got some other plum appointments. Stockman's friend, Phil Gramm, won a place on Budget after leading Jim Wright to believe that, while advocating his own views, he would support the committee product.[59]

Stenholm praised the Speaker's "good job in accommodating the interests of our party and being fair to everyone."[60] But that did not ensure the boll weevils' loyalty on budget matters. With his Republican majority in the Senate, the president was in a far better position than House leaders to deal on policy because Reagan could deliver if he won in the House. Many southern Democrats also felt conservative political pressures in their districts.[61] Because many boll weevils' districts still held residual Democratic loyalties and had weak (if any) Republican organizations, party switching was risky. And if the conservatives backed Reagan yet kept their Democratic identification, they risked being in the position, as Ralph Hall of Texas worried, "whereby if the GOP holds the House in 1983 they won't need us. If the Democrats hold the House, they won't want us."[62] Perhaps the best possible outcome for the boll weevils would be for them to win concessions from both sides, followed by a 1982 election that maintained the status quo and thus their own pivotal position.

The House Democratic leadership could only try to put itself in a good position for bargaining; O'Neill's bows to the boll weevils were one step in that direction. The second step, selecting chairs for Ways and Means and Budget, would be central in the coming dispute. Al Ulmann's defeat put Dan Rostenkowski of Chicago next in line to chair Ways and Means, but "Rosty," a close ally of the Speaker, was also in line for John Brademas's spot as majority whip. His choice of the Ways and Means post served both his and the Speaker's interests. Rostenkowski got a


position of great formal power and independence. O'Neill could hope that the pragmatic Rostenkowski would be able to find allies, among boll weevils and more moderate Republicans, for a Democratic, alternative tax proposal.

The Budget chair was more problematic; each of the two major candidates had disadvantages. David Obey, as chair of the Democratic Study Group, was a leading liberal and the Speaker's ally in the 1980 battles. He was also abrasive, with many enemies (including Rostenkowski), and could not be expected to win over the party's right wing. His rival, James Jones of Oklahoma, chaired the Democratic Research Organization, a group of moderate to conservative Democrats. As a former chief of staff to Lyndon Johnson and successful Democratic campaigner in an extremely Republican district, Jones obviously was an adroit politician, although, like Obey, he lacked the backslapping touch of, say, the Speaker. Unlike Obey, Jones had real problems with liberals like the Speaker and Rules Chairman Bolling. He won his seat on the Budget Committee in 1979 against their wishes. They distrusted Jones because of his policies: he wanted bigger tax breaks for business, endorsed a statutory limit on federal spending, and clearly favored spending cuts. Jones had sponsored the big business tax cuts in 1978, beating the party leaders. He worked closely with business lobbyists, who helped him survive in his ultraconservative Tulsa district because, as one told us, "he was our leader on the tax side." Rostenkowski preferred Jones to Obey at Budget, not because of any love for Jones, but to stop Obey and keep Jones preoccupied, away from the tax fights. The battle then was between two extremely able but flawed members, each with strong supporters. A third candidate, liberal Paul Simon of Illinois, was eliminated on the first ballot within the caucus; on the second, they deadlocked at 118 votes each. On the third, Jones won, 121 to 116.[63] This left Democrats with a budget chairman whose relations with the Speaker were rather dicey but who had some chance to keep the boll weevils on board.

The ascensions of Jones and Rostenkowski made a policy of damage control more likely than confrontation. Both would work hard to cut a deal with the Republicans that would protect Democratic preferences. The choice of Jones in particular shaped the terms of the spending debate. With a fiscal conservative leading the Democrats, Reagan was bound to get, at least in dollars, much of what he wanted.

Many liberals expected to lose. Toby Moffett of Connecticut believed that the Republicans and conservative Democrats would have a "majority coalition" on many issues.[64] Another liberal commented that "we shouldn't spend time nickel-nursing around the edges. We don't have the votes."[65] Jones naturally was more optimistic, predicting "a broad coalition of moderates from both parties who want to get us on the road


to economic recovery."[66] If Jones were right, he and Rostenkowski would blunt the president's attack, limit the tax cut, and bring spending policy closer to Democratic ideals of equity. Domestic spending cuts would be smaller but so would defense increases and tax reductions. If Jones were wrong, the Democratic party would sit still for cuts in their programs, but they would get no credit for reducing the deficit as tax decreases and a rise in defense overwhelmed their sacrifice. The Reagan revolution might cure some ills, if successful, but the deficit was not likely to be among them.


The President's Program

On inauguration day, the prime interest rate stood at 20 percent. The dominant economic issue remained inflation, not unemployment; thus, both media and politicians still emphasized reducing spending to balance the budget. The air of panic remained from 1980. "When Ronald Reagan steps into the White House next week," Newsweek wrote, "he will inherit the most dangerous economic crisis since Franklin D. Roosevelt took office 48 years ago."[1] Lack of support for social spending was revealed, in another way, by President Carter's valedictory budget; it was as tight as his FY81 plan and closed with a call for further reductions in entitlements.

Reagan's Attack Takes Shape

The new president had to nurture this mood to "do something." Reagan thought that he could lead the public against the politicians; when he was governor, as he said, "on the major things I took the case to the people…. Sometimes it is necessary to make the legislature see the light, you make them feel the heat."[2] His strategists agreed that only massive public pressure would overcome resistance in Congress. "To win this fight," declared Stockman with a bit of hyperbole, "the president is going to have to generate a million cards and letters a month to Congress."[3]

While the administration was still working out the details of the plan, Reagan took to the airwaves on February 5 to gather public support. He began with a litany of economic woes, dramatizing inflation by displaying first a dollar bill and then a quarter, dime, and penny to show the how the dollar had shrunk to 36 cents since 1960. Then, in a gentle, unaccusing tone, he described how it had happened; the rhetoric is worth repeating:


We forgot or just overlooked the fact that Government—any Government—has a built-in tendency to grow. Now we all had a hand in looking to Government for benefits as if Government had some source of revenue other than our earnings…. Some Government programs seemed so worthwhile that borrowing to fund them didn't bother us…. We know now that inflation results from all that deficit spending.[4]

The president sought to create the impression that his plan was nonpartisan—but opposing it would be partisan. He was setting up the presidency as the pubic interest and his opponents as the special interests.

To an aide surprised at the speech's tone, Reagan explained, "Listen, if I were making this speech from the outside, I'd kick their balls off."[5] In a tactic from Greek drama that was to be repeated, the bringing of bad news was left to Stockman, the messenger.

Who's on First? Taxing or Spending?

The February 5 speech earned rave reviews; the Democrats saw that the president was putting his position in appealing terms that would be difficult to oppose at the same level of generality. But once matters got down to specifics, the president faced trouble within his own coalition. One issue was: Which came first, tax cuts or spending cuts? Traditional wisdom had it that spending cuts, if any, had to precede tax reductions—pain before pleasure—because only the prospect of pleasure would persuade congressmen to accept the pain. Senate Republicans agreed and pushed spending to the forefront in both counsels and procedures. Donald Regan responded that business needed to plan for the future, so the tax cuts should be pushed without regard to the spending schedule.[6]

In the Senate Budget Committee, the new leadership—Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and his chief aide, Steve Bell—was, to say the least, skeptical of Kemp-Roth. Stockman refers to Bell as "an avowed opponent of supply-side economics."[7] Bell could be scathing against what he considered the inflated claims of some supply-siders. When told at one dinner that the Reagan revolution would increase savings to 12 percent of income, Bell replied that "savings have never varied from a 4 to 8 percent range. After 100 years, if you're a slow learner, you can figure out that there is something in the system that keeps savings from going to 12 percent." He did not think it was 1980's tax rates. Bell believed that cutting taxes had always been easier than cutting spending, and there was no reason to see that pattern as any more mutable than the savings rate. Stockman scorned such reasoning, but Bell's concern was shared by GOP senators such as Domenici, Dole, and Majority Leader Howard Baker. Although resolved to keep his party together and govern the Senate in support of the new Republican president, Baker wanted independent


advice and hired his own economist, Dan Crippen, to provide it. Though quieter and more academic in style than Bell, Crippen was not much more of a supply-sider. Senate leaders and their staffs wanted to follow the president, but they were not about to be sold on the tax-cut-first strategy.

In fact, Senate leaders favored an extreme version of a spending-cut-first strategy. They adopted procedures to make cuts happen fast and be final: reconciliation was slated not only before the tax cut but even before the budget resolution. Senate Republican leaders chose also to extend the reach of reconciliation past entitlements to authorizations for annually appropriated programs. If those authorizations were cut below prevailing appropriation levels, the appropriations committees would have to follow along, for they are not allowed to appropriate more than is authorized. Such cuts would stick in future years (over the term of the authorizations), rather than just in the one year of an appropriation; but the key advantage of reconciling authorizations was speed. If appropriations reductions were delayed until their bills were passed in (at best) September, the drive for spending reduction might have dissipated.

Domenici, Baker, and their staffs had to convince Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove that such a sequence was allowed under the rules. Convincing Dove was made easier by the actions in 1980 of Senator Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), a leader of Democratic budget balancers. Chiles shared Republican Domenici's budgetary preferences and his desire to increase the Budget Committee's power, so the 1980 resolution was drafted to establish precedents that gave the committee a lot of running room. It was not the last time Chiles and Domenici would find themselves on the same side. While Stockman got credit for using reconciliation, it was hardly his idea.

As the resistance to tax cuts became obvious, the children's allowance theory took on some unspoken amendments. Spending cuts would be made to ease the worries of skeptics about the deficit picture in the immediate future. Such cuts would be a down payment, in the sense of a token of intent and ability to pay. If tax cuts did threaten deficits, the fact that Congress had cut spending once would soothe worriers, who might believe it would happen again.

Who was to be convinced? Both Republican and conservative Democratic politicians and, as usual, the financial markets. Politicians were easier to convince than markets. Soon after being sworn in, Reagan showed that business had a friend in the White House. He abolished the Council on Wage and Price Stability, decontrolled domestic oil prices, and placed a sixty-day freeze on pending regulations. But confidence in the White House did not translate into optimism about the economy. A mid-February, Forbes article was subtitled, "Reagan's team won't engineer


a crisis to cure inflation—but there may be one anyway." Bond market guru Albert Wojnilower was quoted: "Today, only extraordinary and unacceptable increases in interest rates are able to slow credit expansion—usually by precipitating bankruptcy crises."[8] With respected conservative voices doomsaying, the markets were going to be a tough sell.

The Rosy Scenario

In this context of market skepticism advisers battled over the assumptions that would accompany the economic plan. They could not use the September 9 inflation assumptions, but any forecast within the bounds of experience would make it difficult to project a balanced budget with the big tax cut. Neither the Senate leaders nor, naturally, House budgeters thought the two fit together. House opposition could be dismissed as partisan, but, if the forecast were denounced by Senate leaders as well, the administration's game would be up. Luckily for Stockman and Reagan, Senate leaders wanted to support their new president and at least the basic outlines of the new policy: real domestic spending cuts and some tax relief. Stockman therefore needed an economic forecast that was optimistic but not totally off the wall, one that could be criticized but not simply dismissed out of hand. He got what he needed, not from calculation but from last-minute compromise.

The original drafting team for the economic forecast—Stockman with his chief economist at OMB, Lawrence Kudlow, and Beryl Sprinkel, Norman Ture, and Paul Craig Roberts from Treasury—were a mix of supply-siders and monetarists. They wanted economic growth of 5 percent to 6 percent, twice the historical norm. "Otherwise," Stockman writes, "what was the point of the whole miracle cure we were peddling?"[9] But they also wanted low growth of money supply. There were two ways to get there; the most obvious was to assume a quick collapse of inflation, falling to 2 percent by 1984. Accordingly, in late January, Stockman's draft forecast was predicting a quick rebound in the second half of 1981, followed by GNP growth of 4.5 percent for each following year, all with low inflation. Conceding that conventional economic models predicted nothing of the sort, the budget director declared those models "can't even predict the next quarter, let alone the next year."[10] That was too true, but wishful thinking was not necessarily a better guide.

Stockman could not sell the forecast to any but his supply-side colleagues. Alan Greenspan was particularly critical (internally), and he was hardly alone. CBO estimated that under realistic assumptions the Reagan package as roughly outlined would lead to $70 to $80 billion deficits.[11] More important, Senate Republicans balked at the developing forecast; Domenici told Stockman that he could not accept it.


Into this mess strode Murray Weidenbaum, the new CEA chairman. He knew that no one would believe the combination of fast growth and 2 percent inflation. His protests were interpreted as a threat to resign, which would be very damaging. There they were in early February with no economic forecast, and, as part of the overall strategy of moving quickly, the administration had already announced that it would reveal the full package in a speech to Congress on February 18. Estimates in the budget documents depend on the economic forecast, so the matter had to be settled fast. "You're going to be sending the President of the United States up that Hill with a blank piece of paper," Dale McComber, chief career official at OMB, warned his new director. "The prospect," Stockman notes, "lacked charm."[12]

Stockman, Weidenbaum, and the rest, therefore, bargained out a forecast. Weidenbaum won agreement to predicting slower long-term growth (4.2 percent annually after 1983) and acknowledging the need for a very small ration of recessionary pain in 1981. The final forecast assumed slightly higher (7.7 percent) unemployment in the fourth quarter of 1981 than had prevailed in the first quarter (7.4 percent). It also assumed a much more gradual fall-off in inflation (to 6.0 percent on the CPI in 1983; 5.1 percent in 1984).[13] The CEA chairman described the result:

A forced marriage. Supply-side people insisted on the possibility of rapid growth in real terms, and monetarists demanded rapid progress in bringing down inflation. Each of them would go along with a set of numbers as long as their own concern was satisfied. The monetarists weren't that concerned about growth and supply-siders weren't that worked up about inflation.[14]

The result, Herbert Stein wrote, "strained credulity."[15] Weidenbaum later claimed that the final result was "extremely optimistic," but not "off the wall…. Was it technically feasible? I think so. But everything had to work well."[16]

The numbers about which there was such controversy appear in Table 3, with comparisons to figures in Carter's budget.The forecast's optimism was not so unusual as presidential forecasts go, though it would prove far less justified than normal. The problem was in the internal logic: this was all supposed to happen with slow monetary growth. The monetary squeeze could wipe out the forecast by creating a recession—the usual concomitant of slowing the flow of financial blood to the economic system. But even without recession there was a mathematical inconsistency.

The revenues to balance the budget, at the lower rates from the tax cut, called for a large growth in the nominal (current dollar) economy and therefore in both real and inflationary growth. Growth in the nominal size of the economy means that more money is changing hands. Either there is more money (i.e., the money supply increases), or current


Table 3. Economic Forecasts for 1981–1983 (in percentages)












CPI increase







Interest, 91-day T-Bills







GNP change







Sources: CQ Almanac, 1981, pp. 272, 279; National Journal, Feb. 21, 1981, p. 307.

money is moving faster (i.e., "velocity" increases). If the money supply were squeezed, then money for the projected growth in nominal terms would have to come from unprecedented increases in velocity. People would have to turn over their money much faster than ever before. Unless velocity increased then, as Paul Craig Roberts later wrote, by "jacking up the inflation assumption" above what the supply-siders wanted—so as both to seem reasonable to those who believed that inflation could only fall slowly and to give an appearance of budget balance that might reduce inflation expectations in the long term—"Stockman showed higher nominal GNP than was consistent with the assumption of monetary restraint."[17] To wring more money from lower taxes demanded a higher nominal GNP; that in turn required high growth and inflation. But, because the money supply was not supposed to grow nearly enough for this, something had to give.

Inconsistency at this level of analysis was not something that economists could explain very well to themselves, let alone to the American public or to politicians. But it suggested that the administration package would be less than convincing to those skeptical bond markets; when they did not react with glee, Stockman, rather guiltily, concluded "they don't think it adds up."[18]

Economically it didn't add; politically it did—barely. No one knew either if the Federal Reserve would hit its monetary targets or what target was really consistent with what rate of inflation. The uncertainty of 1980, plus the difficulty of appearing partisan, inhibited CBO from taking a strong stance against the estimates.[19] Republican economists—Greenspan, for instance—who wanted the administration to look as good as possible withheld public criticism.

The rosy scenario fooled neither budget experts nor leaders of House Democrats and Senate Republicans. But because the administration had avoided totally implausible economic or budget deficit forecasts and was


only technically inconsistent, Senate Republican budgeters would have trouble explaining a break with the president. They would seem to be siding with the Democrats, and that the Republicans could not do. The issue could still be posed as "us" versus "them"; anyone who questioned the figures was opposing the president. Democrats, of course, could say anything they wanted about the Reagan plan, and it would be dismissed as partisan.

Contemplating Cuts

Even under the optimistic economic assumptions, to detail domestic spending cuts that would balance the budget yet pass the Congress was a daunting task. From his previous work with Phil Gramm on a FY81 budget alternative, the Dunkirk memo, the transition (Weinberger/Taft) team work, Senate Budget Committee lists, and so on, the new budget director had collected a large bag of cuts before he walked in the door of OMB. Some were big and obviously politically difficult (the "A" list); others were small and more technical (the "B" list). Once inside that door, Stockman suddenly had a large, highly professional organization to price out all his suggested changes, draft justifications, suggest further cuts (many from hoary OMB lists passed from director to director), and warn him of hidden difficulties (why cuts had continually been passed on). The OMB staff generated additional big and small proposals (the "C" and "D" lists). Among all his new resources, one, however, was scarce: time—Stockman's and particularly the president's and that of his colleagues.

Stockman needed his colleagues' time to make OMB's position the administration's policy. Stockman, for example, wanted to slash nonmilitary foreign aid. New Secretary of State General Alexander Haig thought that budgetary restraint did not justify OMB's changing foreign policy over his head, so he resisted with all the power that a personally forceful bureaucratic veteran could muster.[20] Few other cabinet members had either the facts or the savvy to protest as effectively, but all at least had to sign off on cuts before they were sent to the Hill.

After trying to consider cuts in cabinet meetings, which wasted the time of anyone not immediately on the chopping block, Stockman resorted to a tried-and-true measure of budget cutters worldwide, a separate review board stacked with high officials whose bent was toward cutting. To review contested OMB proposals, his Budget Working Group included Bill Brock, Don Regan, his deputy Tim McNamar, Martin Anderson, and Murray Weidenbaum. Jim Baker and Ed Meese were members but rarely had time to attend. Anderson excelled at doing Stockman's work for him, overawing cabinet secretaries and their bureaucrats


with his expertise. Because it was so early in the administration, not many department heads knew much; because few new lower-level appointments had yet been made, department heads were forced to rely on the word of suspect (by definition) career bureaucrats against a group of their administration colleagues. Not a good position for the cabinet members.

Stockman thereby won acquiescience, if not support, to cuts that were then presented to the president for final approval as the product of a group of his cabinet officers. Stockman believes the process made cuts seem more consensual than they were.

If the President learned any lessons from [the process] … they were undoubtedly the wrong ones. When he later found himself being challenged by congressmen and senators, I would hear him say again and again, "The fellas in the cabinet round-tabled all this and are in one hundred percent agreement that these cuts should be made."

In fact, they hadn't and they weren't. We had brow-beaten the cabinet, one by one, into accepting the cuts. It was divide-and-conquer, not roundtabling. In my haste to expedite the revolution, I had inadvertently convinced the chief executive that budget cutting was an antiseptic process, a matter of compiling innocuous-sounding "half-pagers" and putting them in a neatly tabbed black book.[21]

It is fairer to say that Reagan, who on his own upped the estimate of "waste, fraud, and abuse" to 10 percent of all spending, was not educated to the contrary by the process.

There was no point in bashing cabinet officers over the head to back something that congressional Republicans were going to nix. Opposition had to be gauged and then overcome. And so as "black books" of proposals flew around the executive branch, a similar blizzard of paper was carried to the Hill. An OMB source explained that "to get the most politically saleable, $40 billion lowest common denominator, you need to start with $70–$80 billion … [but] it's not a smooth glide path from 70 to 40; more like 70 to 30 and then back up to 40." Many cuts failed to pass political muster. Because Stockman had to win support one by one for individual cuts, which were controversial enough, there was no way to assess the totals.


This process of politically setting cuts, within both administration and Congress, raised the issue that Representative Corman and Democratic budgeters had debated in 1980: Would budget cutting go where the money was or where the power was not? Stockman wanted to defuse


liberal criticism by cutting business and middle-class subsidies as well as programs concentrated on poor people. As he told William Greider, "We are interested in curtailing weak claims rather than weak clients…. We have to show that we are willing to attack powerful clients with weak claims. I think that's critical to our success—political and economic."[22]

Over in the Senate, Budget Committee Chairman Domenici agreed: "You never heard Pete Domenici make the argument that you could balance the budget, have significant defense increases and multiyear tax cuts simply by eliminating waste and fraud." He told David Broder, "You have to restructure the entitlement programs, either by adjusting the inflation indexes or redrawing the eligibility rules."[23] To Domenici that meant not just rule changes for the means-tested programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and medicaid—weak clients—but reductions in the COLAs for the big middle-class programs, particularly social security.

The social security COLA in 1980 had far exceeded comparable wage increases, thus transferring money from current workers to the retired; that is, when prices rise faster than wages, as during 1979's inflation, and benefits are indexed to prices, beneficiaries do better than people who pay taxes. If cutting the COLA were ever to seem fair, now would be the time; and, because the inflation adjustment would be large, there was a lot of money in it. SBC leaders estimated that a one-year COLA freeze in 1981 would save $88 billion over five years.[24]

In the House, one Ways and Means aide recalled, "I and other staff had assumed, because there were huge increases then, that there would be some deal on the COLAs. Jones was looking at it, and I and the other staffers in the back room expected it." In the Senate, a source recalls, the sense was that "we had to get the social security COLA now. Our first notion was a crude suppression of the COLA. Hollings was on board. We knew that here we've got the old man, elected by a big electoral margin, the SOB could sell ice cubes in Alaska, it was time to do it." In short, the budgeters of the center wanted to go after social security.

As his later actions and his own report make clear, Stockman was quite interested in reducing federal commitments on the middle-class entitlements. If anything, he wanted not just to restrain the COLA but to reform the "capricious hybrid of out-and-out welfare benefits and earned pension annuities"[25] that social security had become. Inside OMB, Stockman and his staff considered a very big cut: eliminating "early retirement" at age sixty-two and forcing people to wait for (supposedly normal) retirement at age sixty-five. People who retired early did receive reduced benefits, but the reduction fell far short of the system's cost of paying benefits for an extra three years. The early-retirement provision was a


classic example of Stockman's plaint: a provision unjustified in both actuarial terms and the welfare notion of need. Anybody who qualified and wanted could take the benefit.

But retirement at age sixty-two is the clearest case of budgets as commitments. People plan, save, and make life-choices assuming they can retire and receive social security at age sixty-two. To suddenly break that promise to millions of people would be extremely controversial—too big a thing to try to slip through as part of some other package. "We didn't want to take it on in that context," an OMB source recalls. "There would be too much disruption of the system." So early-retirement changes went back on the shelf, never making it into the black books for Congress to see.

That left COLAs. There existed a technical problem for the Social Security Administration, a political problem for Reagan, and a strategic problem for Stockman. A change to the July 1 COLA had to be adopted very quickly so social security computers could be programmed, certainly by late April. For that technical reason alone, OMB publicly urged SBC to forego any change; it could not be passed on time. Because technical expedients can always be found, the political problem was more important; under campaign pressure, Reagan had promised not to touch social security. Both the perceived and real lack of commitment to that program was his, and perhaps his party's, biggest weakness. Neither James Baker nor Howard Baker wanted anything to do with reopening the social security issue. Finally, from Stockman's point of view, going after the COLAs had all the risks of fundamental reform without all the benefit. Knowing he would face massive protest, he wanted to get more than the COLAs for his trouble. An OMB aide explained:

Stockman thought that if we did the COLAs we wouldn't be able to come back to it again…. If you look at social security as a fiscal problem, the COLAs five years out are maybe 8 percent of programs costs. It's a small part of social security…. If you want to make progress, you have to take some checks out of the mail.

The budget director convinced himself that he could get what he needed for 1981 from small tag-alongs to social security, like the student and minimum benefits ($1.7 billion worth), without rousing the core constituency.[26] No one in the administration was likely to urge the budget director to go any further.

With social security off the table, Stockman's cut lists emphasized the means-tested entitlements, intergovernmental assistance, economic development or subsidy programs, and a few special targets (particularly the regulatory agencies, where reductions, by making it harder for them to operate, would kill two birds with one stone).[27] One cut with large


symbolic value for equity (accordingly, prominently leaked[28] ) was a reduction in the lending authority of the Export-Import Bank, which subsidizes exports for large companies. Stockman proudly reported to Greider how he had beaten back its defenders within the administration with "a demagogic tirade about how in the world can I cut food stamps and social services and CETA jobs and EDA jobs and you're going to tell me you can't give up one penny for Boeing?"[29] It was not so easy. Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige lost the first round of intra-administration sparring but, in his first meeting with some top business lobbyists, had warned that Export-Import was on the block and had begun rallying them to save it. In the end, Stockman would do less well than he hoped on Export-Import. But he did manage to clear the way for substantial cuts in economic and technological development programs favored by some Republicans.

One cannot estimate precisely who benefits from many federal programs. Does the Urban Mass Transit program benefit needy riders or middle-class bus drivers? Who gets what part of the subsidy for school lunches? No one knows. We can say that between one-third and one-half of the OMB package took from people who already were not doing very well. Some people on the border of poverty did very badly.[30] Our estimate fits common reactions at the time. When the final package was announced, its reverse redistribution drew extensive criticism.[31]

The brunt of the burden fell on the "working poor," those employed Americans who earn little and therefore live near the poverty line. Benefits for that group had risen during the 1970s for two reasons. First, the poverty line was set at a rather low standard of living, and people who were not below it could still use help. Second, making that line a cutoff would drastically reduce the incentive to work, especially for low paying jobs that might nonetheless provide training useful for a later career. Benefits for the working poor were thus expected to make it easier for them to escape from poverty.

The Reagan administration was eliminating or trimming a wide variety of programs focused at those margins of eligibility. Small individual cuts added to large effects.[32]The Economist, hardly a left-wing rag, concluded that the benefit cuts "will reduce to virtually nil any incentive for these poor mothers to keep on working." The distributional tilt was well-publicized: in an April CBS/New York Times poll 82 percent felt that some groups, particularly the poor, would be hurt more than others.[33]

Part of the package's distributional tilt was a residue of other decisions. If you leave out the military, social security, and interest, the amount of cuts to programs that helped the poor was not quite so out of line as a proportion of the remainder. Yet Stockman also intentionally zeroed in on low-income programs. He wanted to change the "welfare state premise"


in favor of the state helping people who might otherwise help themselves. His changes were at the high end of eligibility because that was where the recipients who were not lame or blind or otherwise disabled, who conceivably could make their own way, were to be found. Those cuts also met less internal administration resistance. An OMB civil servant explained, "I've never met a Republican at a community health center."

The administration included no advocates for the poor, but many members feared that, if the program seemed to beat too much on the poor and give to the rich, the media and centrist politicians would condemn it as unfair.[34] When the cabinet met on February 10, a number of members "complained that the administration was getting a 'black eye' because of the proposed social cuts."[35] In order to defuse such criticism, the administration announced that it would not propose cuts in a "social safety net" of programs: social security, medicare, veterans' benefits, Head Start, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) were the main ones.[36]

At an Urban Institute conference in 1984, Martin Anderson objected to the idea that the safety net was a serious policy commitment. He told the conference that

Providing a safety net for those who cannot or are not expected to work was not really a social policy objective. The term safety net was used in the 1980 Republican platform and then adopted by the Office of Management and Budget to describe a set of social welfare programs that would not be closely examined in the first round of budget changes because of the fierce political pressures that made it impossible to even discuss these programs without invoking a torrent of passionate, often irrational, criticism…. The term safety net was political shorthand that only made sense for a limited period of time.[37]

Perhaps, but the safety net was emphasized in strong language in the documents announcing Reagan's budget package.[38] Most participants, and certainly the president, would agree with Anderson. But what they wanted is not as important as what they felt forced to do. The language of safety net expressed what most Americans accept about government social policy: People's lives should not be damaged through no fault of their own, due to hard luck or hard times. In fact, many key programs for the needy, like AFDC, were not in the net. Rather, it included those whose recipients were hardest to stigmatize—the elderly, the elderly sick, veterans, the handicapped—or had most political power. The safety net device did not increase the program's "fairness." Yet it was a major concession. One member of the administration saw the safety net as "a very important concept to have a hyper-conservative government commit


to. Bear in mind that Reagan and his supporters feel that social security should be voluntary and medicare should not exist."

The overall package was biased against the working poor also because Stockman was blocked from attacking tax expenditures. Many things government does for the better-off people form exceptions to the tax code. The mortgage interest deduction, for example, is only useful to people who buy houses, and its value increases with the recipient's tax bracket. A number of other government programs provide services that only better-off citizens can use, for example, improvements of airports and traffic control serve people who own their own airplanes. In theory, government could charge a "user fee" for some of those services. Eliminating such tax preferences and increasing user fees were difficult because they involved Republican constituencies. Late in the game, however, Stockman made a run at them. Pressure from Martin Anderson, Pete Domenici, and others to increase the prospect of budget balance gave him his chance.[39] Stockman believed that, if accepted, the "Chapter Two" proposals would have "dramatized the underlying fairness and justice" of his program.[40]

Stockman boasted about Chapter Two to Greider, claiming budget pressure was allowing him to be more fair, to "force acquiescence in the last minute into a lot of things you would never see a Republican Administration propose." It was the same political theory the Democratic reconcilers had propounded in 1980. Greider was skeptical. Stockman reminded him that he had pledged secrecy. "If you tell your guys about this shit, I'll have 160 people calling the White House." The Washington Post reporter replied, "You will anyway."[41]

Phone calls were not necessary. On February 11 Stockman brought up the Chapter Two tax preference proposals for approval, beginning with reducing the oil depletion allowance. To Stockman, as for most liberals, there is hardly a better example in the federal government of a program justified only by the naked power of black gold. He was shocked and demoralized, therefore, by what transpired:

All of a sudden, the President became animated. Our proposal unleashed a pent-up catechism on the virtues of the oil depletion allowance, followed by a lecture on how the whole idea of "tax expenditures" was a liberal myth.

"The idea implies that the government owns all your income and has the right to decide what you can keep," said the President. "Well, we're not going to have any of that kind of thinking round here."[42]

Stockman retreated.

The tax side was at the heart of the fairness issue. For business interests and the better-off people, the benefits from tax reduction far outweighed


any losses from spending cuts. The poor, who pay little or no taxes, got little from all the tax changes, even as they lost the benefits of government spending. Later analyses of the effect of Reagan's program continually showed both the poor losing and benefits increasing with income; an across-the-board rate reduction in a progressive tax system had to give the most to people with the highest incomes. And the tax cut was bigger than the spending cut. Ultimately, the "unfairness" of the Reagan program emerged, above all, from the original policy choice to reduce tax rates across-the-board.

The Defense Buildup

Another choice, essentially the president's preference, was his commitment to a huge defense buildup, no matter what the budgetary consequences. OMB never had much influence on defense matters in Republican administrations; all had relied on the office of the secretary to provide most review of the services' requests. Having so much else to worry about, Stockman told himself that Cap Weinberger, once established in office, would take his famous budget-cutting knife to the DOD: "I think Cap's going to be a pretty good mark over there," Stockman told Greider. "He's not a tool of the military-industrial complex."[43] Stockman misjudged both Weinberger and the president.

An exchange with Elizabeth Drew reveals Reagan's attitude in early 1980:

Drew: I ask Reagan if he thinks we can regain military superiority over the Soviet Union. "Yes," Reagan replies . "I think the Soviet Union is probably at the very limit of its military output. It has already had to keep its people from having so many consumer goods. Instead, they're devoting it all to this military buildup. I think it's the greatest military buildup the world has ever seen. I think it tops what Hitler did. And therefore, when people talk about an arms race, this doesn't mean that the Soviet Union escalate to twice what they're doing now. We're the ones who have actually played along with the treaties and, if anything, actually reduced our weapons." He continues, "Now, what I think Russians would fear more than anything else is a United States that all of a sudden would hitch up our belt and say, 'OK, Buster, we've tried this other way. We are now going to build what is necessary to surpass you.' And this is the last thing they want from us, an arms race, because they are already running as fast as they can and we haven't started running."

Drew: "Where are you going to get the money to pay for this military buildup?" Ronald Reagan: "Out of the economy."[44]

Unlike Carter, Reagan refused to subordinate the defense budget to fiscal policy.

Jimmy Carter's FY82 budget called for 5 percent real growth per year


for five years. He also proposed a $6.3 billion supplemental for new (mainly inflation-related and pay) expenses for FY81. Many observers felt that Carter's request would be hard for Reagan to top. They were wrong. Reagan felt obliged to do significantly more. If Jimmy Carter wanted 5 percent, then that must not be enough.

Unfortunately "need" cannot be defined concretely. The formal DOD Planning, Programming and Budgeting System (PPBS) only encouraged the services to estimate need as broadly as possible in the planning and programming steps, leaving hard choices to the budget process. "No one knew in the Carter years what the real number would be," one DOD budgeter recalled, "but the general assumption was that the [planning figures] were never-never land."

Carter's final budget, even with 5 percent real growth, therefore proposed far less spending than his own administration's 1980 estimates of "need." The navy would get 121 new planes instead of 217; 80 ships over five years instead of 97. Some of these differences came from the military's special talent for inflation. An extreme example was the Phoenix missile: Carter's 1982 budget estimated that 72 could be purchased at almost the same cost projected for 210 a year before.[45] Moreover, there are large economies of scale in defense purchases.[46] Reagan's men argued that a much bigger buildup was more efficient and met a "need" already defined by the professional military.[47]

Weinberger relied on the services to define need, downgrading his central DOD staff. He entered office with a "fix-up" package designed during the transition largely by a cadre of people working for Senator John Tower, new chairman of Armed Services, including appointees Richard Allen (national security adviser), Fred Ikle (undersecretary of policy in the DOD), Edward Rowney (chief arms control negotiator), John Lehman (secretary of the Navy), and a few others. "When Weinberger took over," a participant recalled, "the report was complete, the services had it, and their submissions reflected those priorities." Stockman accepted not only the package but also, as his associate director for national defense, Dr. Bill Schneider, a former aide to Jack Kemp who was "totally plugged into" the Tower group. The package was mainly procurement increases on existing weapons, with a 3 percent supplemental increase for FY81; on that new base, it represented not a 5 but a 15 percent real increase in budget authority for FY82.

Instead of Jimmy Carter's $200.4 billion, DOD wanted $226.8 billion. And it was almost all in procurement, raised from $49.1 billion to $68.8 billion.[48] Newsweek described the result as "a gusher of cash that stunned even conservatives in Congress and quickly erased Secretary of Defense Weinberger's reputation as a ruthless enemy of fiscal excess." "Marveling at the display of largesse," a Pentagon official "joked that 'Cap the Knife' should be known henceforth as 'Cap the Shovel.'"[49]


The "get well" package was nice, but for its planning the Pentagon needed some sense of what to expect in later years. Stockman also needed long-term defense numbers because he needed to project budget balance in the future. On January 30, he, his defense deputy Bill Schneider, Weinberger, and Undersecretary Frank Carlucci met to work out some ballpark figures. The discussion assumed the get well package for FY82. Because the economic forecast was not ready, they bargained in terms of real growth; they would translate that into concrete dollar amounts when the forecast was done. Frank Carlucci said 8 or 9 percent was the minimum necessary. Stockman, who knew enough to want more than Carter's 5 percent and expected Martin Anderson, "a flinty anti-spender on everything," to "go off the deep end" if they took Carlucci's number, suggested they split the difference—7 percent. Weinberger shed a few crocodile tears. "In light of the disgraceful mess we're inheriting," he replied, "seven percent will be a pretty lean ration." Then he agreed, swallowing Stockman whole in the process.[50]

By his own account, Stockman missed the fact that 7 percent for the years after FY82, compounded upon the FY81 and FY82 increases, resulted in a 10 percent real growth rate per year from 1980 to 1986. Essentially, Stockman forgot to figure the first year into his calculations. The budget director not only didn't know he had been skinned, but he didn't realize that he and Weinberger were on opposite sides. Stockman thought he had agreed on "plug" numbers, but he anticipated that "Cap the Knife," once entrenched in the Pentagon, would find all sorts of fat to cut so those totals would never be met. Weinberger, however, saw a commitment to dollar figures that he could use ever after to justify requests. Not that he was opposed to finding "fat," but, if they found any, he and Carlucci figured they should be rewarded, allowing the savings to turn into more muscle.

Stockman Proposes and Reagan Disposes: The President's Program

With all the compromises, defense, and the forecast, Stockman knew and could tell his colleagues by February 7 that the package was coming up "short" by at least $30 or $40 billion. The budget director told himself that the shortfall was not so great a problem. Some more "cats and dogs" cuts could be found after February 18 (planned for release March 10). Beyond that point—well, the children's allowance theory might work: "I knew that the remaining $44 billion gap was huge. I remembered it was probably going to end up even larger, due to our cockeyed economic forecast. But I saw in this only the potential leverage it provided


to … force Congress to shrink the welfare state."[51] For the moment he needed some way to downplay the gap. Stockman resorted to what Howard Baker was to call "the magic asterisk"[52] —"additional savings to be proposed later" of $29.8 billion in FY83 and about $44 billion in each following year.[53]

Anderson raised a red flag; he argued that, if the future-savings numbers were too big, they could "undermine the whole credibility of the program from day one."[54] His objections were not enough to cause much internal hesitation. The president expected his cabinet to find more "waste, fraud, and abuse." Stockman writes that no one asked the "essential political feasibility question: How many congressional horses do you need to cut $40 billion more—on top of the black book full of cuts already proposed? How many horses do we actually have?"[55] Feasibility, however, is not a radical's question. Reagan considered the status quo a full-fledged disaster. Not to try to enact his full package was, to Reagan, the same as abandoning the country to a terrible fate. If he didn't get it all, he would try again later. The less radical advisers suspected they would not get the whole tax cut anyway, so they did not believe the deficits would come true. Both the revolutionaries and the pragmatists therefore were willing to push the president's program as far as possible, seeing where they would came out.

Reagan announced his Economic Recovery Program on February 18. The administration was ready to announce savings of $34.8 billion. A further $6.7 billion was promised.[56] Foreign policy and defense were barely mentioned; the point was to rally support for solving the nation's economic problems.

Reagan tried to minimize the pain. Referring to "exaggerated and inaccurate stories" that social security was threatened, he declared:

Those who through no fault of their own must depend on the rest of us, the poverty-stricken, the disabled, the elderly, all those with true need, can rest assured that the social safety net of programs they depend on are exempt from any cuts.

The full retirement benefits of the more than 31 million social security Recipients will be continued along with an annual cost of living increase…. All in all, nearly $216 billion worth of programs providing help for tens of millions of Americans will be fully funded.

Here was the commitment to social security that would come back to haunt the administration. "But Government," Reagan went on, "will not continue to subsidize individuals or particular business interests where real need cannot be demonstrated."

He proceeded to announce what would be cut. His list, from food stamps to NASA to the post office, must have impressed listeners with


its scope. The documents released at the time of his speech listed eighty-three "major" program reductions. Some programs would be consolidated into block grants, with reduced funding; the added flexibility and reduced administrative costs to state and local governments would supposedly make up for the funding losses. Subsidies to business, justified as aids to development, would be reduced because business would develop better if it followed market incentives. Synfuels would be axed $3.2 billion, the Economic Development Administration would be shut down, and subsidized lending would be slimmed down in many agencies from the Export-Import Bank to the Farmers' Home Administration. Reagan highlighted the cuts to "profitable corporations" funded by the Export-Import Bank. Nutrition programs would be better targeted, he said, removing from eligibility "those who are not in real need or are abusing the program." Medicaid federal contributions would be "capped," and states encouraged to save costs in the program's management and provisions.

Having described his spending proposals, the president moved on to his tax program. He called for Kemp-Roth, with an effective starting date ("I had hoped we could be retroactive on this") of July 1. While it would "leave the taxpayers with $500 billion more in their pockets over the next five years," it was "actually only a reduction in the tax increases already built into the system." These increases included social security, bracket creep from inflation, and "windfall" taxes on oil.

The other part of the tax-cutting program would directly stimulate productivity through increasing depreciation allowances. Many other desirable and needed tax changes—indexing, the marriage penalty, tuition tax credits, estate taxes—would be requested at "the earliest date possible" after enacting the Kemp-Roth "10-10-10" of 10 percent individual cuts and the Jones-Conable "10-5-3" accelerated depreciation plan. That Reagan later matched Rostenkowski bid for bid should not have been a surprise.

In the balance of the speech, Reagan announced regulatory policy initiatives and the administration's full support for the Federal Reserve policy of monetary restraint. He concluded by invoking once more the urgency of the situation and the bankruptcy of the opposition: "Have they an alternative which offers a greater chance of balancing the budget, reducing and eliminating inflation, stimulating the creation of jobs and reducing the tax burden? And if they haven't, are they suggesting that we can continue on the present course without coming to a day of reckoning?" If the Democrats had such a plan, they would have a hard time articulating it without the "bully pulpit" of the presidency. In fact, they had no plan as yet; they had been waiting to see what the president would propose.


Gramm-Latta 1

The February 18 message impressed but did not please the Democrats. "They've put a giant-sized package together in 30 days," said Tip O'Neill. "Are there inequities? You can bet there are inequities." Democratic interest groups, particularly labor, minced no words: "It is a soak the poor and give it to the rich proposition," said Steelworkers' President Lloyd McBride; Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers called the plan "Robin Hood in reverse."[1] Labor Department programs had been cut drastically, from $34.5 billion in the Carter budget to $26.7 billion. Nearly all the remaining activities of the department, in addition, would be directed by friends of business.[2]

Some Democratic intellectuals, however, approved many of the cuts. Stockman had harpooned many beasts, such as Impact Aid and dairy price supports, that budget analysts had been attacking for years. In an article that blasted many cuts as inequitable, the New Republic nevertheless agreed "that the present federal budget is full of fluff and waste and needless subsidy…. Those who hope for a greatly expanded government role, as well as those who want a greatly reduced one, should be happy to see the Republican administration clean up the Augean stable." Reagan's argument for better targeting a number of programs seemed right to many observers; Carter himself had tried to reduce the school lunch "middle-class subsidy." Many programs attacked–for example, CETA, EDA, and rent subsidies—were, in the New Republic's words, "badly conceived, or redundant, or top-heavy with administration, or otherwise not cost-effective." For liberals the problems with those reductions was that "all of Reagan's proposed cuts, taken together, don't rationalize government largesse—they simply reduce it."[3] These reformers would have liked to replace those programs with something better.

The Democrats also sensed the public mood to cut spending; Senator


Pryor reported that his Arkansas constituents were even willing to see farm mortgage programs reduced.[4] Massachusetts liberal James Shannon found that his constituents largely believed that federal programs had benefited the undeserving poor at the expense of hard-working middle-class citizens.[5] Therefore, on February 20 when they replied to the president's speech on a television show, Democrats avoided a frontal attack on spending cuts. Jim Wright declared that Congress would support "refurbishing the nation's defenses, encouraging private investment to modernize America's industrial machinery, lifting the burden of unnecessary government regulation, cutting expenses, and restoring more local control over the schools"—in other words, "us too!"[6] Instead they attacked the tax cuts. Senator Gary Hart suggested a one-year trial for the plan; and Chiles declared that it would be no favor to send the taxpayers "a tax refund written in red ink."[7]

Early in March Senate Minority Whip Alan Cranston summarized the Democrats' options:

1) give [Reagan] everything he wants, on the theory it will prove disastrous and the Democrats then would benefit politically from Reagan's failure; 2) propose a complex substitute for the Reagan package; 3) give Reagan most of what he wants, but fight tenaciously against the worst of his cuts. Cranston dismisses the first as "irresponsible," the second as impractical and "not politically bright," which leaves him with the third.[8]

Throughout this period there were rumors that the Democrats would take the first approach—roll over, play dead, and hope for the best. But that made little sense. If they wanted Reagan to get the blame for failure, Democrats would have to oppose him. There was no way to vote secretly.

The first test of Democratic strategy came in March, when the Senate Budget Committee reported out reconciliation instructions before a budget resolution, as a way of locking in support for spending cuts. Democrats submitted a blizzard of amendments; they all failed. Baker and Domenici attained virtually unanimous Republican support on every key vote. In the face of this unprecedented GOP unity, Democrats had little hope of winning. Yet they were handicapped further by their own divisions.

A GOP aide recalled that "there were individual [Republican] defections. But there was a hell of a lot of reliance on conservative Democrats to make up for them…. You knew you would lose Hatfield on defense, but you got Stennis and Nunn." The package was designed to appeal to the southerners; as another put it: "Sure, we wouldn't screw with TVA, Impact Aid, farm programs; we wouldn't cut a lot out of dams—Bennett (Johnston) was ranking minority on Energy and Water. Tennessee-Tombigbee, Clinch River—we had our eyes open, we knew


what we had to do." All the Senate Democratic Policy Committee could do was keep a list of embarrassing votes for campaign use.[9]

Back in the House, Jones kept trying to assemble a plan that could unite the party. Stockman, who watched Jones through the eyes of new Budget Committee member Gramm, was impressed by Jones's performance.[10] The new Budget chairman, however, had trouble with his own party. Much of the leadership still distrusted him. Jones's personal style did not help; one experienced staffer commented that Jones "was pretty good at communicating with people but not good at making people feel they'd been communicated with." This perception was shown in another aide's comment that "the problem with Jones was, he held things tight to his vest. You never knew what he was going to do."

Yet Jones was heading in the same direction as two groups of his colleagues who were drafting their own proposals. These two groups—the 1980 Mineta, Panetta, Wirth, and Gephardt "Gang of Four," and liberals Steven Solarz and Thomas Dowhey of New York, Paul Simon of Illinois, and Les Aspin of Wisconsin —merged, worked out a detailed scheme, and then arranged to meet with Jones. At that meeting on April 2, the participants discovered their proposals were quite similar. A centrist Democratic consensus was forming.[11]

A Pause for Public Opinion

As they looked at policy to see what they could bear to concede, the Democrats watched public opinion to see what they would have to concede. The polls showed some support for the Democrats' skepticism about the tax cut. A CBS New York Times poll taken in late January pictured the public more interested in budget balance than a tax cut by an overwhelming 70 percent to 23 percent margin. Respondents (52 percent) preferred a smaller tax cut to either a larger one (24 percent) or none at all (16 percent). As many as 61 percent of respondents wanted to spend more on defense, but a Time poll taken a little earlier showed respondents doubtful that tax cuts and defense hikes could be combined with a balanced budget; when forced to choose, respondents preferred budget balance. Both polls evinced little enthusiasm for any spending cuts save welfare.[12]

Legislators had other barometers of opinion; Reagan's speeches generated a flood of mail to Congress that, combined with their own soundings back home, made them leery of opposing him. The Speaker reported that his mail and his constituents showed strong support for Reagan. But, as time passed, the margin of support in letters and from constituents diminished.

Opinion soundings told a mixed story about Reagan's own popularity,


which is what mattered if the issue were posed as for or against the president. He was quite popular, but not by the standards of new presidents. A Gallup poll showed Reagan's disapproval rating of 24 percent to be far higher than for any other president at a similar period; his 59 percent approval, moreover, was lower than that for any previous new administration.[13] Reagan's pollster, Richard Wirthlin, concluded that people were polarizing, with a strong majority favorable to the plan.

Through most of the winter Speaker O'Neill was relatively quiet. He didn't want his party to seem to be obstructing the new administration, but he did encourage hearings on the budget proposals to focus attention on their consequences. Majority leader Wright took a more public stance against the Economic Recovery Program, but he also wanted to have it both ways: accepting budget restraint but criticizing specific cuts. Some liberal Democrats saw in the Speaker's quiet and in Wright's and Jones's compromise positions "a timid leadership and a runaway Budget Committee chairman determined to sell us out in the false hope of gaining conservative votes."[14] They would criticize the leaders throughout the battles of 1981 for not allowing the chips to fall where they may. Tip O'Neill cared too much about programs not to try to save some, but knew he couldn't save them all. And so he temporized, partly due to the lingering shock of the election and partly out of a political veteran's sense that, in politics, timing is everything. Anti-Reagan trends had to be nursed, not assumed. Why not see what Jones could do?

On March 12 Jim Wright, citing poll data, wrote to his Democratic colleagues: Reagan did not really have a mandate for the policies he was proposing; the Reagan plan imposed "a grossly unfair burden on those least able to carry that burden, those Mr. Reagan describes as the 'truly needy'"; and "the people want Congress to be cooperative. They do not want it to be supine."[15] By the end of March, Democrats were rallying around the idea of a comprehensive budget alternative that would reduce the deficit by reducing the tax cut, cut spending but protect some social programs. On April 6 Jones unveiled his plan, which was supported by the double quartet of members who had been working separately on their own plans. The rationale for the alternative came two days later in a Statement on Economic Matters adopted by the House Democratic Caucus.

"For half a century," the caucus statement declared, "the Democratic Party has been an engine of equity and progress in America…. The Democratic Party has seen our American government not as an enemy, not as 'the problem,' as President Reagan said it was in his Inaugural Address, but as a necessary instrument for achieving vital public goals." Although inflation had many causes, Democrats argued that reducing spending would help and would also bring down interest rates. They


accepted the need for lowering taxes raised by inflation bracket creep, but they would not "join in any program of fiscal control that puts the main burden of fighting inflation on the backs of middle- and low-income workers [through spending cuts] while providing unprecedented benefits for the privileged few [through tax cuts]." The tax program, they argued, "is inflationary because it will stimulate demand before supply, creating enormous deficits in the process." They wanted to stimulate investment but did not trust the holders of capital; they therefore wanted business tax cuts to be more strictly targeted than in the 10-5-3 plan. They justified individual program cuts as helping curtail inflation, not as freeing market forces. The caucus statement made clear that the ultimate stake of the battle, the point where conservative Democrats like Jones and moderates like Gephardt most differed from Reagan, was the role of government. Throughout American history, "private enterprise has been strengthened, rather that hindered, by government-aided research and development, development of basic transportation facilities, and aid to small business, urban areas, and farmers."[16]

The missing piece was willingness to attack Ronald Reagan head-on. As events turned slightly in their favor in March, Democratic leaders gained confidence. The Speaker, deciding it was time to take the gloves off, scheduled a major attack in a speech before the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Council, which met the week of March 30. But it didn't happen.[17]

The president spoke to the Council on March 30. As Reagan left the Washington Hilton that afternoon, a young man named John W. Hinckley, Jr., emerged from the crowd, pulled a pistol, and began firing. Once again, violence slashed into our political body, as with John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and George Wallace. But this time the victim lived; and, unlike George Wallace, Reagan emerged from his ordeal, not hobbled, but larger than life. The nation held its breath, and Speaker O'Neill cancelled his speech.

A mad gunman, as the courts concluded, came within an inch of ending the Reagan revolution. Hinckley's story and his motives need not concern us here. The assassination attempt alone serves to remind us of the tenuousness of history. The scene was confusion; the president himself did not know that he had been shot, though he was in "paralyzing pain." Three unintended victims were seriously wounded—Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy, patrolman Thomas Delahanty, and White House Press Secretary James Brady. Both the operation to remove the bullet from the president's lung and the subsequent recovery period were far more dangerous than the White House let on.[18] The president and his staff worked to paint a picture of stability and strength; hints of confusion and weakness, it was feared, would encourage challenge overseas.


They did not want to lose the initiative in their fight to change American government.

To demonstrate that the president and his administration were still in charge, Baker, Meese, and Deaver (on April 1, the morning after the shooting and the three-hour operation) brought Reagan the dairy price-support freeze legislation. "Hi, fellas," greeted the president, "I knew it would be too much to hope that we could skip a staff meeting."[19] He shakily signed the legislation.

Reagan used humor to reassure himself and those around him; his staff, and doctors, relayed his jokes to the general public for the same reason. "Please tell me you're Republicans," he quipped to the surgeons as he was being wheeled to the operating room; when told by Lyn Nofziger that the government was running normally, he responded, "What makes you think I'd be happy about that?"[20]

The shooting, and his brave reaction to it, garnered Reagan an extra dose of not just sympathy but also respect and awe. At a time when the polls showed his popularity beginning to slide, he received a new wave of personal support. This was not just a movie-star president but a heroic president. His pollster concluded that the event made a permanent impression on the public, creating a reservoir of good will that would go on protecting him even when his policies were controversial.[21]

As Reagan convalesced, his administration's lobbying effort had to slow, for its most effective lobbyist had to take it easy. His opponents were equally disarrayed because it would be bad form to attack a recuperating president. A muted tone would not help the Democrats rally their supporters.

The Republicans: Some Victories, Some Doubts

In some ways it is easier to understand the Democrats in 1981 than the Republicans. The Democrats fought in the open, as is their wont. Most Republican maneuvering went on behind the scenes.

Howard Baker called the whole program a "riverboat gamble." At a luncheon meeting at the Post on January 7, Senate Finance Chairman Robert Dole presented not Kemp-Roth but instead the much more limited previous year's Finance Committee bill. Dole said it was his job to guide the Reagan program through the Senate, but he doubted that it would survive undiluted. Around the same time Barber Conable, ranking Republican on Ways and Means, was saying "I don't think for a minute that if the president proposes a flat-rate cut, Congress will agree. Congressmen have other measures, the cost of which will be a trade-off against the tax cuts."[22] He was right about "other measures," wrong about the tradeoff.[23]


The lobbyists were not about to wait for a second bill. As one of them put it, "the judgment around here is that there won't be a second bill or that it won't move in Congress. We're going to have to make every effort to get onto that first bill."[24]

The president was very sure of his position. A presidential adviser recalled:

You look at all the stories being published about backing and filling and they give the impression that Reagan was changing back and forth. That's wrong. The people around him were changing, or some of us were. We were having doubts, and the news coverage reflected that. Reagan hardly moved at all. At one meeting [in January] Reagan got a little impatient with us. He said, "Listen, you guys are talking to each other and no one is asking me what I think. I'm sticking with it [the 10-10-10 approach]."[25]

Republican economists were divided over the merits of the emerging package, but former Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns was unusual in saying that "if I were an economic czar there would be no personal income tax cuts at all this year. We need to be very cautious about adding to the swollen budget deficits that are already in prospect."[26] No one really knew how the markets would react to the tax cuts; most preferred not to attack their own side.[27]

Republican politicians, even more than economists, hesitated to criticize the new administration.[28] This was their chance to govern; criticism was aid to the other side. Members of the administration like Darman and Baker, with backgrounds in other wings of the Republican party, had to show their loyalty to conservative ideals. Dole and Baker were in a similar spot, having both lost the nomination to Reagan; if they were critical, they could be suspected of trying to make the president look bad.[29]

The remarkable unity of Senate Republicans throughout 1981 resulted both from this desire to govern and careful efforts by the administration and Howard Baker to nurture the notion that they were all working together. In December Baker gathered Stockman, Regan, Jim Baker, Anderson, Dole, Hatfield (chairman of Appropriations), Domenici, and Jake Garn (chairman of Banking) to begin working out the program and strategy. Baker met with Reagan two or three times a week, and the White House lobbying staff was instructed to defer to his wishes. Every Tuesday Baker met with the Senate's committee heads, coaxing them toward unity. Although some Republicans had doubts, Senate Majority Whip Ted Stevens reported, they agreed to maintain public silence "because we realize that if one Senator tries to break down an agreement, then the others will do so."[30] Consultation and unity were enhanced by the fact that Reagan was loyal to his troops as well. When Baker announced


on March 26 that the executive committee of the Senate Republican Policy Committee had agreed to postpone considering "social issues" to 1982, he was blasted by the New Right. Reagan immediately told the Post that he agreed with the decision.[31]

Unity was easier on spending cuts than on tax cuts because, to a certain point, spending cuts fit both the Republicans' preferences and all politicians' perception of the public mood. Thus, Newsweek reported "private agonizing" by the nation's governors at their national conference but, by 36 to 2, they announced they were "prepared to accept budget cuts."[32]

An even better example of the mood came when Congress in March froze the price support for dairy products, preventing a scheduled increase worth $147 million in FY81 and $1.1 billion for FY82. There is a lot of money in milk, and it flows both ways, from Congress and to Congress. When Agriculture Committee Democrats in the Senate caucused about the issue, they began by talking about how to kill the proposed cuts but were soon discussing how bad it would look to be on the wrong side. "I would have found it very difficult," said David Pryor of Arkansas, "to vote for that particular program and then go home over the weekend and give speeches about the need to cut spending."

The Senate Budget Committee's maneuver in reconciling first, before a budget resolution, was designed to maximize both unity and spending cuts. It also seemed to accommodate the need to demonstrate spending reductions so that the tax cut would look more plausible. In SBC and floor action through March and into early April, the strategy seemed to succeed brilliantly. Republican unity on the Senate floor was overwhelming. Yet not all was as it seemed.

The most dramatic event went unreported until much later. Both protagonists have written about it. David Stockman writes,

A warm fire was crackling in Howard Baker's office, when we arrived at 9:30 a.m. on March 17. The Senate Republican leadership and Budget Committee members were already assembled…. Reagan led off with an Irish joke, and the meeting got down to business: their proposal to attack nearly one quarter of a trillion dollars in indexed pensions, affecting roughly 36 million Americans.[33]

In defiance of Stockman's plan, Domenici and his GOP allies had decided to attack the COLAS. As honest budgeters, interested not in policy revolution but in restraining spending per se, Domenici, his staff, and Democrats like Hollings and Chiles believed that spending control had to include a diet COLA. Domenici told of the incident in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post on January 21, 1986. Its title, "Ghosts of Deficit Forever," conjures up Dickens's Christmas Carol . The scene in Howard Baker's chamber is the last revealed to the guilty politicians by the Ghost


of Budgets Past. The end, revealed by the Ghost of Budgets Future, is collapse under Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. That should give the flavor of how Domenici felt about the scene he described:

The president leans across the table and tells the 12 Republican members of the Senate Budget Committee that he will not support a bipartisan attempt in that committee to freeze cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security recipients as part of a deficit-reduction plan. He asks them to join his opposing effort. In front of the senators is a sheet showing savings from a one-year freeze on the COLAs—$88 billion over five years, and more than $24 billion in the year 1986 alone.

The senators relent. They go back to committee and vote against the move to freeze the COLAs. Social security, although larger than all domestic non-entitlement spending programs put together, is protected in future budget battles; it comprises almost 25 percent of the non-interest spending in the federal budget.

Jim Baker did not think Republicans could ever touch social security; Howard Baker had helped arrange this meeting as a way of slowing down Domenici and his troops. The president told the group, "I promised I wouldn't touch Social Security. We just can't get suckered into it. The other side's waiting to pounce."[34] Stockman writes that the senators wanted to cut the COLA so they could put money back into other programs. That ascribes to the senators a quite remarkable lack of political acumen.[35] Rather, the meeting on March 17 became part of the long-term price of 1981, grounds for resentment and recriminations when the deficit blew up.

Republicans Shot Down

Besides social security, Senate Budget Republicans attempted and made only a few changes in the administration's domestic cuts. On the Senate floor, the major test of unity occurred on March 31.

Five veteran Republican senators were a liberal remnant within their party. Those senators were Charles Mathias of Maryland, John Chafee of Rhode Island, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, Robert Stafford of Vermont, and Mark Hatfield of Oregon, who as the new chairman of Appropriations was really on the hot seat. At Mathias's instigation, the group began meeting regularly soon after the election. All were longtime party loyalists, but all had ideological and constituency problems with the administration. They hoped to use their pivotal position, given their party's slim Senate margin, to moderate policies. None had any relations with Reagan, but all five were close to Howard Baker and wanted to help him control the Senate.


Torn between party and belief, Hatfield and company faced the blizzard of Democratic amendments. An aide recalls that it was

this Draconian thing. There was a Metzenbaum amendment on child vaccines, all sorts of terrible votes. They were all "people" sort of votes, like AFDC, and the Republicans all in lockstep were voting them down. Chafee, Stafford and Weicker were all up in 82 and they got very nervous. Their advisors were saying, "These are your constituents, they elected you in the past, you're taking this Republican stuff too far!"

Chafee decided to offer an amendment restoring funds for programs of particular interest to northerners and urbanites, such as home heating assistance, Urban Mass Transit, Urban Development Action Grants, and education funding. Because the increase in the deficit would be limited to just that package, the administration would be protected; moderates could use the Chafee amendment as evidence that they were representing their constituents and to excuse voting against all the Democratic changes.

Greider reports that "Stockman had no objection. The amendment wouldn't cost much overall, and it would 'take care of those people who have been good soldiers.'"[36] But if Stockman did not really mind, other Republicans did. At the least, the administration's opposition was muted, and Domenici seemed willing to go along. Then Domenici decided to try to beat the amendment. Putting a little back into the basic package "made it easier" for fence-sitting moderate Republicans. As a symbol of the vote's importance, Vice President Bush was in the Senate chair if necessary to break a tie.

Chafee lost 40 to 59. Majority Whip Ted Stevens of Alaska admitted he was voting against Chafee reluctantly, adding that "many of us have been saying no not only to programs we supported in the past, but sometimes to programs we initiated."[37] Eleven Republicans still stood up for Chafee. Hatfield, as a member of the leadership, could not join his "Gang of Five" colleagues; but John Heinz and Arlen Specter (Pa.), William Cohen (Maine), David Durenberger (Minn.), Mark Andrews (N.D.), John Danforth (Mo.), and Charles Percy (Ill.) joined Stafford, Weicker, Mathias, and Chafee. Those Republicans, however, were more than balanced by the seventeen mostly southern Democrats who opposed the amendment.

The Chafee failure showed there would be no coalition of moderate Democrats and liberal Republicans. "Chafee was the one shot we had at making inroads," said Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). "When that failed, any hope of making additional inroads went out the window."[38] The vote also dramatized the situation of the northern "gypsy moth" Republicans of the House and Senate.


Moths, Weevils, and the Unexpected

Any plan that slashes domestic and increases defense spending is necessarily biased against the Northeast and the Midwest. The military and its contractors flock to the sun; but old, decaying industry lives near the great water sources of the North, especially the Great Lakes states. Also, northern Republicans come from a different ideological tradition than did Reaganites: a Protestant activism that Daniel Elazar has called a moralistic or "commonwealth" view of society.[39]

The commonwealth ideology gave rise to movements of conservation and government reform that reflect a hierarchical view of noblesse oblige and proper procedure. Leaders in society have special obligations to give back—to sacrifice for the whole.[40] Ronald Reagan's radical individualism was not congenial to those who believed in a nurturing role for government. Nevertheless, these gypsy moths fundamentally were defenders of authority, uncomfortable with the Democrats' egalitarianism. Trapped between their policy preferences and their identity as Republicans, they were particularly susceptible to appeals for preserving the party's ability to govern.

The Chafee vote showed that, in the Senate, where representation by state favors the South and the West, gypsy moths could not find enough Democratic allies to triumph on the floor. In the House, however, they could tip the balance. There were about half as many Republican gypsy moths as Democratic boll weevils (the other set of potential defectors)—just enough, between the groups, to balance almost perfectly the two sides. In general, the gypsy moths ran well ahead of Reagan in their districts. If they were to be pulled toward the administration, therefore, the attraction would be less electoral incentives, although they might worry about their financial backers and party organizations, but more desire either to be part of a governing team or to avoid being one of a few Republicans who had handcuffed a new president of their own party.

In the early months of maneuvering, the moths, like the rest of their Republican colleagues in the House, had little to do. They had to wait to see the Reagan package, but then they also had to wait to see what alternative Representative Jones would devise. The stage was set for the battle over the first budget resolution.

Numbers and Priorities

The Democratic package included many of Stockman's major cuts but revised some others. On the average, Jones cut social programs by only 10 to 12 percent, instead of the administration's 25 percent plan. EDA and Legal Services were saved. Food stamps would decline by $950 million instead of $1.6 billion. Child nutrition programs would lose $1 billion


instead of $2 billion. Medicaid payments would not be "capped" (i.e., limiting federal spending that meant kicking the problem back to the states); they were estimated at $1.15 billion higher than in the Reagan plan.

Jones had tried to win administration support for his package. He had negotiated with Stockman throughout February and March, and, just before announcing their package, Jones and Leon Panetta met with the budget director one more time. Jones thought he was giving Stockman about 85 percent of what he had asked for. But Stockman objected particularly to their efforts to protect low-income programs like medicaid; he saw reducing those welfare-state programs as a matter of principle. Democrats felt the same about maintaining them, and Jones knew even his party's budget balancers could not accept Stockman's cuts.

Jones produced lower deficits with smaller social cuts by shaving the defense buildup and allowing a smaller tax cut. Some of his other moves were more questionable. He "saved" $1.5 billion by assuming that the government would borrow funds to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (off-budget)—not absurd because the oil would be an asset but not really a spending reduction either. Across-the-board administrative savings would yield $4.8 billion, a device by which Jones essentially spread out costs that Stockman had targeted on specific programs, without explaining what was really supposed to change. Another $1.3 billion would be recovered from oil companies, supposedly in actions against them for various price infractions. Again this was not absurd, but, given delays in the court system, it was doubtful.[41] After a few revisions in committee, the reduced FY82 tax cut and other new savings left Jones with a deficit of $25.6 billion, compared to the administration's $45 billion.

Many observers agreed with Jones that the HBC resolution gave Reagan most of what he wanted; it was adopted by a 17 to 13 vote on April 16, as boll weevil Gramm voted with the Republicans. "A bemused Republican staffer in the House probably put it best: 'We are being dragged kicking and screaming to victory.'"[42] The administration disagreed. Stockman objected not only to where Jones made cuts and their amount but to how. Democrats were allowing only $18 billion in savings through the reconciliation process; the rest would be done in appropriations. The Senate had assumed $36.9 billion in reconciliation savings. Undoing cuts from reconciliation would require new authorizations, which the president could fairly easily veto. By contrast, reductions through appropriations would occur through thirteen separate bills over a period of many months, and those appropriations could change the following year when support for cuts might diminish.[43]

Although many Democrats, especially authorizing chairmen, still disliked


reconciliation, Jones, backed by his committee, had the Speaker's support for using the process again.[44] Jones was not willing to reconcile authorizations (i.e., reduce them to fit within a resolution) when savings in appropriations were technically plausible; reconciliation, in his view, was to be used for entitlements.[45] The Republican insistence on reconciling discretionary program authorizations, therefore, also raised an issue of congressional procedure that left much bad feeling in 1981, recurring in later years.

HBC reported out its budget shortly before Congress adjourned for Easter recess. Jones wanted to push his budget to the House floor immediately, exploiting its lower deficit to appeal to the boll weevil Democrats. The weevils would have been less influenced by the pro-Reagan campaigns whipped up in their districts over the recess. The still shaky Democratic leadership, however, had too little confidence in either Jones or their own control of the House to push events forward. The Republicans, therefore, had the rest of April to lobby while revising their own package.

As Stockman and Gramm worked on the House boll weevils, the administration suddenly ran into trouble in the Senate. On April 9, Republicans William Armstrong of Colorado, Charles Grassley of Iowa, and Steven Symms of Idaho defected from their party and joined the Democrats in voting down Domenici's proposed budget resolution. Apparently, Senator Hollings had been right back in 1980; arrived on the shores of leadership, "pilgrim Armstrong" was not so happy with the way his party was carving the turkey.

Domenici refused to put Stockman's magic asterisk of unspecified savings in his draft resolution and also adopted more realistic interest rate assumptions than the administration had employed. These blows for a more honest budget caused the Reagan plan's FY84 balance to disappear, replaced in Domenici's estimate by deficits of $40 to $50 billion per year from FY82 to FY84.[46] All three conservatives had campaigned for office pledging to balance the budget, and Domenici was saying it wasn't true. Armstrong could not accept that—"I'm so committed to a balanced budget," he declared, "that I am prepared to vote against the defense budget, which I've never done before, and against water projects, something no Senator from Colorado has done in 80 years." Domenici called the vote "ridiculous," "more pathetic than serious."[47]

Although it looked like the disagreement was between the three defectors and their chairman, the real conflict was between Domenici, representing the doubts of Senate Republicans, and the administration. Domenici was focusing attention on the fact that the administration's program did not add up. He rejected "unspecified" savings on the


ground that, without knowing where savings would come from, the committee could not project totals for each budget function (e.g., national defense) in FY83 and FY84.

Domenici, however, was in an impossible position. He wanted to use other Republican senators to force the administration to see the light. But if the administration persisted in making its entire plan a test of party loyalty, then the contest became Pete Domenici, a rogue (if correct) Budget chairman, against his president for the support of other senators. Presidents have more weapons in such a fight than do budget chairmen. Domenici's vote alone, of course, might beat the president's plan in the narrowly split (12 to 10) Budget Committee. Yet that would make Domenici the Republican who busted Ronald Reagan's presidency before it had gotten going, and Domenici could not do that. He really needed the administration to flinch, but neither Reagan nor Stockman would. Instead Stockman urged the Wall Street Journal, in a scathing editorial, to place all the blame on the Budget chairman,[48] and the administration's heavy guns began targeting Domenici and the defectors.

Howard Baker had already decided weeks before, in a meeting of Senate and White House leaders, that the only reasonable solution to the "future savings" conflict was to punt—and hope the ball never came down.[49]

When the administration refused to blink, Domenici was forced to retreat, devising a set of changes that looked like progress compared to the package that had been voted down (so Armstrong and company could save face) while not really changing anything. He reestimated the outlays created by the assumed budget authority; projected a one percent saving from the ever-popular waste, fraud, and abuse; and with a few other maneuvers, ended up with a smaller magic asterisk of about $15.3 billion in FY83 and $27.7 billion in FY84. Whether because they were satisfied by this rather questionable adjustment or because they had nowhere else to go, Armstrong, Grassley, and Symms returned to the fold on April 18, joined by Democrats Chiles, Johnston, and Sasser.[50]

Domenici did win one victory, though of dubious meaning. Hollings's proposal to include a COLA freeze in reconciliation had been defeated by the committee Republicans after their fateful meeting with the president, but now he moved that the budget resolution assume that COLAs, including social security, would be delayed from July to October and set at the lesser of the increase in wages or prices. Domenici and six Republicans joined Hollings, and the proposal passed 9 to 8. Because the reconciliation had already been passed, the COLA change had little chance of being implemented unless the House adopted it; this may explain the lack of outcry from lobbies for the elderly.

After these glitches, the administration's package emerged safely from


Senate Budget. Lockstep Republican votes for reconciliation left little doubt that the resolution would pass the Senate. The situation on the House floor was much more unpredictable.

Stockman and his friend Phil Gramm reduced their deficit by adopting some of Jones's tricks, such as moving the Strategic Petroleum Reserve off-budget, making general "waste" reductions, and collecting penalty money from those overcharging oil companies. They also added back some money for programs favored by southerners. Extra funds for V. A. hospitals, for example, were the price for the support of Veterans Affairs chairman G. V. "Sonny" Montgomery of Mississippi, a boll weevil leader of greater stature and respectability than either Gramm or Conservative Democratic Forum (CDF) organizer Charles Stenholm (D-Tex.).[51] It is easier to defect when one's elders are doing so. The new package, cosponsored by Gramm and GOP Budget Committee leader Delbert Latta (thus "Gramm-Latta") shaved $6.7 billion more from the deficit.

Stockman and Gramm's new adjustment made their package more attractive to the boll weevils but did little to help the gypsy moths. The moths organized, as one of their leaders, S. William Green (R-N.Y.) put it, "to work for our regional interests within the context of our overall desire to restrain the growth in federal spending."[52] The Northeast/ Midwest coalition, a bipartisan caucus whose vice chairman was Carl Pursell (R-Mich.), led in criticizing regional consequences of the economic plan. "We always seem to be selling out Northeast interests and Midwest interests to pick up southern Democratic votes," Bill Green declared. Stockman worked to reassure the gypsy moths as cheaply as possible.[53]

While his members went home to meet the voters during Easter recess, Tip O'Neill went to Australia and New Zealand. A number of Democrats thought that in doing so he made "a very serious mistake of political judgment," as James Oberstar put it. Another midwesterner maintained that "we had the momentum going for our budget when we went into recess. Then Tip goes off on a junket for two weeks. Meanwhile the White House is at work, they put on a real campaign, and we had only a half-baked effort."[54] It was not clear, however, exactly what the House leadership was supposed to do while most members were back home. They had already played their best cards, committee assignments, and they would be of no help with the gypsy moths. The leadership's main tools were appealing to party loyalty and shifting provisions in the package, but neither was possible while everybody was out of town.

When the Democrats returned from their recess, Foley told the Speaker they were fifty to sixty votes short. O'Neill groaned that "only the Lord himself could save this one," and another Democrat declared,


"We're going to get the crap kicked out of us." To O'Neill, the difficulty was not his trip but rather the other members' trips back home. "The President had overwhelming support," he said, "and that's what the members found out."[55]

The evidence suggests that O'Neill was right. One summary found that the messages in the districts were conflicting, but these were the liberal districts. When a Massachusetts representative has heavy district pressure for a conservative program, that program is likely to be pretty popular overall.[56] The polls in late April revealed strong support for the president's policy. Reagan's popularity had surged after the assassination attempt; now CBS/New York Times showed his spending proposal favored by 35 percent to 14 percent and his tax proposal approved by 37 percent to 11 percent. (More had no opinion, which should give us pause.) Even more than half of the 38 percent of the responders who expected to be hurt personally approved of Reagan's performance as president.[57] An Associated Press/NBC survey found respondents disagreeing (54 percent to 36 percent) with the proposition that the spending cuts were too drastic. In a separate question, 20 percent thought they did not go far enough.[58] In short, a substantial minority of the population disliked Reagan's proposals, which helps explain his relatively high disapproval in polls cited above, but a substantial majority liked the program.

By mobilizing constituents directly (including lobbyists contacting campaign contributors to ask them to pressure waverers) and by appealing to the public in a speech to a joint session of Congress on April 28, the president's strategy kept the pressure on at home. The president also continued a soft-sell approach to both weevils and moths, meeting with small groups and, without giving away anything, trying to put them at ease with his program.

Carroll Hubbard (D-Ky.), a representative since 1975, was one object of this attention. He was invited to a state dinner for the prime minister of Japan, scheduled a day after the budget resolution vote, making it embarrassing to vote against his host. Jimmy Carter had never done that sort of thing. Hubbard was "wooed with phone calls from the President, box seats at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and a steady parade of White House lobbyists bringing one clear message: The President is too popular in your district for you to vote against him."[59] "I sincerely believe," Hubbard told the Times, "that if the President's program is adopted there will be much unhappiness across the nation in a few months." But even with these beliefs and a district that supported Jimmy Carter in 1980, Hubbard hesitated. His constituents, he reckoned, "have serious doubts about the Democratic Party in 1981. They think the Republicans are more serious about fiscal restraint and balancing


the federal budget…. I have solid citizens calling me up and saying, 'We've tried everything else, let's try something new, vote with the President.'"[60]

Hubbard ultimately stuck with the Jones resolution, but most of his southern colleagues did not. Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan assured waverers that a vote for the new "Gramm-Latta" package's large spending reductions did not commit them to its three-year across-the-board tax cuts. Budget resolutions set a floor for revenues, not a ceiling. The administration was telling southerners they could have their cake and eat it too: support a popular president, yet preserve your option on the tax cut. "If we get them to the first plateau," Regan said, "we'll just let them sit there. Then we'll try to go to the next plateau."[61]

The administration also tried to make defection easier for boll weevils by presenting the Reagan plan as bipartisan. Gramm was the first sponsor of "Gramm-Latta," which reflected his actual role. With a Democratic first sponsor, the administration could claim that its plan was bipartisan while Jones's plan, without Republican sponsorship, was a party document—a disadvantage because most Americans, unlike political scientists, consider partisanship a synonym for divisiveness and other bad things. Delbert Latta, in his twelfth term in the House, found deference to second-term member Gramm difficult. After lengthy negotiations, George Bush called Latta and told him the president was relying on his cooperation.[62] Some southern Republicans wanted the issue joined in a more partisan manner to force the weevils either explicitly to endorse the Republican plan or to defy the president. Ed Bethune of Arkansas felt that drawing the line would increase his party's chances of carrying the South in 1982. Stockman, however, was gambling for policy control; building up the southern GOP was not his concern.

That left the gypsy moths. Lobbying these Republicans, the Administration used the same kind of arguments as it had with the boll weevils: Yes, you may not like everything here, but it's just the first step. It can be fixed later, but if the president's beaten now and you're the ones who beat him, you get the blame, and no change from the status quo will be possible. The gypsy moths, however, objected to different parts of the package, especially the defense buildup. Representative Bill Green reports that, whenever he told Stockman the defense numbers were too high, the budget director replied that they certainly were but he viewed them as a reserve. They could be pared later to pay for a natural disaster like Mount St. Helens or an unnatural disaster such as continued high interest rates.[63] Stockman reports that "between thirty and fifty 'soft' Republicans" badgered Bob Michel to restore various cuts. Finally Michel exploded: "Geeminie Christmas! When are you guys going to recognize that this is only a budget resolution? It doesn't cut anything! It's all


assumptions! If you've got problems, write 'em down and send 'em to me. We'll take care of them later!"[64]

In 1981 the budget resolution, furthest from policy substance, was the vote most easily presented as, Are you for or against the president? Therefore, the most important and dramatic act of the budget resolution campaign was the president's speech on April 28. Although a third speech on the same subject in three months was a bit much, House leaders could not refuse this platform to the wounded president.

In his first formal appearance since the assassination attempt, Reagan spoke to a joint session of Congress. A "senior White House aide" commented:

Normally you have the idea that a new President has an open window for just so long and it shuts very quickly in terms of public interest and support. But the shooting incident and the way the President handled it, the character he showed, has reopened the window and given him a second opportunity. Tonight the country was watching again to see how he looked, what his voice sounded like, how he handled himself and what he had to say.[65]

Ronald Reagan looked ruddy and vigorous, sounded slightly hoarse, and received, in Robert Michel's words, "the kind of reception that makes a few of the waverers feel, Gosh, how can I buck that?"[66] He received two standing ovations before he even began to speak. When he spoke, he surrounded some of the same material contained in his first two speeches—statistics about the nation's economic plight, assertions that the election was a message that government was too big and spent too much—with passages that tugged at the emotions of his audience. In those passages the president spoke about America and identified himself and his plans with what Americans hope their country can be. America, he said, was not failing but, listening to doomsayers, had merely lost some of its faith. He evoked powerful symbols—the sacrifice of those wounded in the assassination attempt and the flight, two weeks earlier, of the first space shuttle—to argue that America was good and America was strong.

His budget (or rather, Gramm-Latta) should be adopted over the alternative Jones plan, Reagan said, as an affirmation of what makes America great: "dedicated police officers like Tom Delahanty, or able and devoted public servants like Jim Brady." Within the body of the speech, Reagan spoke also of the tax program's problem with the balanced budget and his three possible arguments—supply-side, children's allowance, and the tax reductions that were not so large after all. He emphasized the last, which had greatest appeal to moderates:


Now I know that over the recess in some informal polling, some of your constituents have been asked which they'd rather have: a balanced budget or a tax cut. And with the common sense that characterizes the people of this country the answer, of course, has been: a balanced budget. But may I suggest, with no inference that there was wrong intent on the part of those who asked the question, the question was inappropriate for the situation. Our choice is not between a balanced budget and a tax cut. Properly asked, the question is: Do you want a great big raise in your taxes this coming year or, at the worse, a very little increase with the prospect of tax reduction and a balanced budget down the road a ways…. A gigantic tax increase has been built into the system. We propose nothing more than a reduction of that increase.

Although Reagan was arguing his plan was not so radical, the depth of the spending cuts alone was enough to convince Congress that the plan was not business as usual. He proclaimed that "the old and comfortable way is to shave a little here and add a little there. Well, that's not acceptable any more. I think this great and historic Congress knows that way is no longer acceptable." The Republicans gave that statement a standing ovation, with as many as seventy Democrats joining them. Max Friedersdorf turned to an aide and asked, "Can we count this as our vote and pack up and go home?" Tip O'Neill turned to George Bush and said, "Here's your forty votes."[67]

After the speech, the Speaker declared that "we'll either win it by five or six votes, or lose it by sixty, because if you start to lose it, the swing will come." O'Neill expected votes to switch because members would want to be on the winning side, especially because Gramm-Latta seemed more popular. Nevertheless, Democrats desperately looked to adjust Jones's package, giving it a better chance to pass. Deputy whip Bill Alexander (D-Ark.) suggested scotching the first year of the tax cut to balance the budget in FY82; the idea was an appeal to the boll weevils. After polling members on April 29, it turned out that, in Alexander's own assessment, it "didn't buy us enough votes." In another appeal to the weevils, the Democrats added back into their plan the $6.5 billion difference in budget authority for the military. Worries that this might upset liberals were erased by the knowledge that losing would upset them even more.[68]

The final blow came on May 2, when Senate minority leader Robert Byrd announced that, although he did not like the president's budget, he would support it because the public wanted "to give the president the benefits of the doubt." Byrd's concession merely ratified the situation in the Senate, where the Senate resolution would pass overwhelmingly on May 12, but his words put the last House gypsy moth holdouts in an impossible position. "We can't be hanging out there," one complained, "if your people are throwing in the towel."[69]


On May 6 the two liberal alternatives were handily beaten. The debate on May 7 symbolized the defensive position of the Democrats. "Let history show," said House minority leader Robert Michel, "that we provided the margin of difference that changed the course of American government."[70] Speaker O'Neill replied, "Sure, in the 1970s my party made mistakes. We overregulated. There was too much red tape and probably too much legislation. And we paid for it at the ballot box last year…. [But] do you want to meat-ax the programs that made America great? Or do you want to go slow in correcting the errors of the past?"[71] One could hardly find a better phrase—the programs that made America great—to capture the difference between the liberal Democrats' vision of the role of government and that of the president. The Speaker could have claimed, in fact, that the actors who starred in Reagan's speech a week before—the policeman, secret service man, the astronauts, and indeed all of NASA itself—were part of government programs. Then the president could reply that America was great long before big government and the New Deal. On this occasion the president won. Gramm-Latta passed, 253 to 176.

The president won sixty-three Democrats; no Republicans deserted him. Some Democratic defectors would have voted with their party if the vote had been close; eleven of them would not defect in any later major budget votes. The Democrats had lost badly, but they had lost a public struggle in which, despite the fury, no final decisions were made. When actual program legislation was changed, the results might differ. Tip O'Neill was already looking ahead to the reconciliation legislation. "You don't think I'm going to do this in one package, do you?" the Speaker asked. "I'm going to have some selected votes and I'm going to pick some beautiful ones."[72]

Social Security

Victory on the budget resolution did not win over the moneymen whose judgments were so crucial to the administration's economic goals. The president might appeal to the public with his call for daring, but bankers, looking at the numbers, were unconvinced. Stockman conceded in his private conversations with William Greider,

that his own original conception—the dramatic political action would somehow alter the marketplace expectations of continuing inflation—had been wrong…. They don't think that it adds up…. I take the performance of the bond market deadly seriously. I think it's the best measure there is. The bond markets represent worldwide psychology, worldwide perception and evaluation of what, on balance, relevant people think about what we're


doing…. It means we're going to have to make chances…. I wouldn't say we are losing. We're still not winning. We're not winning.[73]

The early bond market rally that Stockman had predicted in his Dunkirk memo had not arrived. Interest rates on bonds, after edging slightly downward in January, were slowly climbing.

There was some good news: the economy seemed to head off on a boom in the first quarter, leaping forward at least at a 5 percent annual rate of growth. Perversely, that growth, if anything, raised inflation fears, so the administration had to downplay the good news to maintain the sense of urgency needed to justify that "something new" in economic policy was required. In spite of the growth, employment was stagnant; interest rates were edging back up from a March low of 17.5 percent for the prime rate. On the day that the House passed Gramm-Latta, a Wall Street Journal headline read, "Wall Street Is Greeting President's Program With Jitters, Turmoil."

"We're in the midst of a very strange financial crisis," says Peter Solomon, managing director of Lehman Brothers Kuhn Loeb Inc. "You'd think Wall Street would be happy. The President is doing just what you'd like him to. Congress is about to give him his budget cuts. Oil prices are falling." But the financial markets are nervous.[74]

Donald Regan argued that it was a case of different horizons—the administration looking toward fiscal 1982, the markets looking at the "disaster" of existing financial conditions. That meant Stockman's theory of expectations wasn't working.

Alan Greenspan declared that the administration had to prove it would curb inflation by cutting the deficit further. That meant taking on social security. Institutionally and ideologically disposed toward budget cutting, Stockman agreed. Independently, that program's difficulties were bringing it stage front within the administration.

The new secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Richard Schweiker, was determined to use his position to help solve the impending crisis in social security financing. High payments and low collections in recent years, due to the greater growth of prices than in wages, had left the trust fund in danger of running dry in 1982 or 1983. (The nature and causes of social security's difficulties will be discussed in a separate chapter.) In the meantime, J. J. (Jake) Pickle (D-Tex.) was holding hearings in his Ways and Means subcommittee, developing a bill, and asking the administration for reactions. He made some tentative proposals the administration would not accept, and he pressed them to make their own suggestions.

Democratic leaders' fondest dream was that the administration would


only be so dumb. "I was praying and working to see if I could get them first committed to gutting Social Security in some fashion," one Democrat recalls. They could never have dreamed, however, that they would succeed as quickly as they did.

April 9, the day Gramm-Latta was unveiled, was also the day Pickle announced his modest reform plan. Even as Stockman pushed to pass Gramm-Latta or something like it, he felt that continued skepticism in the markets required bigger savings, quickly. Pickle's plan could help, but it made up for only a "tiny fraction" of the budget gap Stockman thought was freaking out the markets. "I did desperately need a reform plan that saved a lot more than Pickle's paltry proposal."[75] Stockman hoped that "the impending insolvency of the retirement fund would be a handy cattle prod" to force politicians to cut the most sacred of cows.

In an April 10 meeting, Stockman and Martin Anderson insisted that Schweiker develop proposals to close the gap by reducing benefits rather than increasing coverage. (The standard way of handling fund crises had been to include a new category of worker, in this case government employees, who begin paying immediately but do not collect for a couple of decades.) Anderson and Stockman saw many benefits as unearned and unjustified. Stockman's goal was the proposal he had brought with him to OMB and then held out of his original package: raising the penalty for retirement at age sixty-two to a point where there was no actuarial difference between retiring at sixty-two or sixty-five. Schweiker's staff warned that the changes Stockman wanted would never fly on Capitol Hill. In particular, the rules could not be changed suddenly on retirees; rule changes could not be used for significant, short-term savings. Stockman dismissed that as the bureaucracy's standard inertia. Like many political administrators, the budget director refused to believe that civil servants could help him by telling him things he did not want to hear.[76]

On May 11 the issue was brought to the president who, following his own inclinations, vetoed the coverage expansion as a tax increase and accepted the early retirement changes on the grounds that the existing provisions were one reason why "I've been warning since 1964 that Social Security was heading for bankruptcy." Martin Anderson praised Reagan's courage in choosing to "honestly and permanently fix Social Security." An enthusiastic Reagan signed off, then and there, on a package whose major component was an immediate, major retrenchment of the government's biggest program, changing the rules in midstream on millions. The Legislative Strategy Group was left to work out the plan's presentation and sale.[77]

The political aides, particularly Baker, Deaver, and Darman, were horrified. One recalls,


I heard about the Stockman and Schweiker proposal only on the Friday or Saturday before the decision. I asked how the Social Security package could be bipartisan just because you had one subcommittee chairman saying something should be done, but the train was a long way down the track by then….

[We] spoke to [the President] for a long time but I guess we decided that it had gone a long way—maybe we could surface it?

In retrospect I wish we had been more forceful. We got killed on it. We Republicans can't lead the charge because anything we do or say is interpreted as a reduction in benefits.

Right, particularly if it is a reduction in benefits. While the basic retirement age was sixty-five, people had been able to retire at age sixty-two with around 80 percent of their benefit. The Reagan plan would reduce that rate to roughly 50 percent and then gradually raise the proportion to 80 percent at sixty-three years, eight months. People would have to either delay retirement or retire on much less. If retirement at age sixty-five was the basic promise of the system, then the proposal violated no promise. Chiefly it caused the expected total payout to any recipient to remain virtually unchanged whatever the age of retirement, a sound principle of insurance practice. But for anyone who had planned to retire at age sixty-two, the proposal meant a major change. Along with other changes, it also promised to save between $82 billion and $110 billion over the next five budget years.[78]

The political aides, unable to protect the president from himself and Stockman in the morning, were determined to limit the damage when the Legislative Strategy Group met that afternoon. Baker and Darman insisted that the package was a Health and Human Services initiative. Schweiker, hearing the limb being sawed out from under him, tried to show that the political alignments were not so threatening. "This is a bipartisan initiative, bipartisan, " he insisted. "Damn it, I spent twenty years in Congress. I should know how things work."[79] Jim Baker had spent no years in Congress, but he had a pretty good idea. He ignored Schweiker's argument that, "if there's any doubt as to where the President stands, this'll be dead on arrival when it gets to the Hill."[80] Both Baker and Darman figured it would he dead, no matter what. Stockman argued the package was integral to Reagan's economic plan; Baker and Darman said it was deadly to Reagan's plan, and his popularity. So Baker, as chief of staff, ruled that the announcement would come from HHS in Schweiker's name.[81] Darman wanted the announcement to come from Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore (i.e., as far away as possible). The next day Schweiker had his press conference. Then the roof caved in.[82]

People anywhere near age sixty-two were furious. The reaction was


immediate—a deluge of cards and calls to Congress followed by a Republican retreat. Just to make the point clear to their leader, Senate Republicans on May 20 brought to the floor a resolution pledging to protect social security; it passed, 96 to 0. Rob Dole exclaimed, "They threw a life rope to Tip O'Neill."[83] Senator Moynihan imagined what Republicans were thinking: "My God, the Democrats have an issue here that will confirm every doubt anybody has ever had about us for the last fifty years—that we are going to tear up that social security card."[84]

How could Stockman, Schweiker, Reagan and company—sophisticated politicians all—have thought they could get away with this? Well, politics is the science of the inexact. The target was tempting (think of all one's problems solved with a single cut) and the uncertainties sufficiently stimulating (think of how Stockman learned bit by bit that the unfeasible was becoming feasible) to tempt even grown men. Presumably, if no one dared, nothing new ever would be done. Of course, one should remember also that one who dares too much may never get to do anything ever again.

Believers in budget balance could not afford to be amused. The feeling that "they ought to have known better" gives only a temporary feeling of superiority, a feeling that fades fast when the appropriate counterquestion is raised: How can the budget be balanced if its largest programs can never be cut?


Party Responsibility Comes to Congress

The administration had fought for and won passage of its Gramm-Latta budget resolution in order to obtain two things: a revenue target that left room for its tax cut plans and reconciliation instructions to various House and Senate committees that ordered bigger spending cuts in different places than Democrats wished. But the resolution itself cut neither taxes nor spending; that required legislation. Now Reagan and his team moved to the next stage: passing the tax cut in the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 (ERTA) and the spending cuts in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 (OBRA).

The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981
(OBRA, aka Gramm-Latta 2)

OBRA was the most sweeping legislation in modern American history. The budget resolution instructed thirteen Senate and fifteen House legislative, authorizing committees to report back to the budget committees with changes in programs ranging from Amtrak subsidies to Women's, Infants' and Children's nutrition, from AFDC to the Veterans Administration. More than its substance, the 1981 reconciliation was seen at the time as a revolution in process. For nearly two centuries Congress has been organized around its committees; in these sublegislatures members used their greater expertise, knowledge of substance plus connections with the affected interests, and power not to report legislation, to dominate policy making in their domains. Now the committees deliberated, but they did so, "meeting with a gun pointed at our heads," as Carl Perkins, chairman of Education and Labor, described their plight. They could not stall, or hold much in the way of hearings, or even represent their members. They were under orders to report out cuts,


like it or not. Democratic budgeters insisted that the committees respond, and the leadership backed the budgeters because it felt the party could not be seen as opposing deficit reduction. Suddenly, the American Congress, the most nonpartisan of national legislatures, saw an immense package of policies treated as a matter of party loyalty. The Republicans did not like the committees' work; they produced a substitute bill, once again cosponsored by Gramm and Latta and therefore called Gramm-Latta 2. The final showdown between the Democratic version of OBRA and the Gramm-Latta 2 substitute was a partisan battle unprecedented in its scope. Party responsibility and, most amazing, its enforcement had at long last come to Congress.

The budget resolution provided each committee spending reduction targets that had been justified by detailed assumptions about cutting methods. Only the targets, however, not the detailed assumptions, were binding. Committee members could meet the targets however they chose. They did so very differently than the administration and its allies had intended. The latter, therefore, consulting with GOP leaders and some conservative southern Democratic boll weevils, prepared a substitute for the work of seven committees. In the haste and last-minute bargaining, no one saw the alternative in final form until the day of the debate. Stuart Eizenstat, head of domestic policy in the Carter White House, described the implication of having a vote on such a package:

Passage of a Stockman-sponsored substitute on the House floor would create something akin to a parliamentary system, in which the prime minister's legislative package is voted on with little committee action and limited capacity for modification…. Congress would be forced to make the most sweeping changes in a generation in the substances of federal programs without going through the historic deliberative process to assure sound results or paying heed to the work of its own committees.[1]

Having deliberated under the pressure of time limitations that made it impossible to have hearings allowing a voice to those affected by changes, the committees themselves were in danger of having no say. If Reagan was proposing a revolution in spending priorities, reconciliation was a revolution in our form of governance.

"Congressional Government," wrote Woodrow Wilson long ago, is "Committee Government." Hence congressional power is committee power; the Reconciliation Act, by overruling committees, was widely viewed as imposing on the rights of Congress itself. "Reconciliation," proclaimed Richard Bolling, "is the most brutal and blunt instrument used by a president in an attempt to control the congressional process since Nixon used impoundment." From another point of view, congressional power is the ability to confront problems and apply to them the


judgment of the people, as filtered through a representational process. From this very different perspective, Leon Panetta, chairman of the House Budget Committee reconciliation task force, declared that "no one … can question that this document represents the ability of this institution to do its job, and to that extent I think our democracy has been well served."[2]

The sheer sweep of OBRA made its substance seem more revolutionary than it really was. It was very important, but other acts of Congress had had greater effects on our nation. In 1964 alone, at least two—the Civil Rights Act and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—were more important: the first committed the federal government to battle for racial (and later other categorical) equality in our society; and the second facilitated escalating the Vietnam War. In 1981 ERTA, to which we will return, was more important because it reduced taxes far more steeply than reconciliation cut spending, thereby shaping the politics of a decade.

The importance of reconciliation, however, could not be judged solely by policy outcomes in 1981. A better question is whether reconciliation represented a new pattern of decision making through which actions outside the committee—interest group relationship—whether ideological forces, or party, or the independent frustrations of politicians themselves—would become dominant.

Conciliatory Name, Hostile Process

After reconciliation became a matter of public debate, it was generally viewed as a brilliant maneuver by the Republicans, often ascribed to the wizardry of Budget Director Stockman. Even later it was possible to find offhand references to reconciliation as a 1981 innovation.[3] In fact, as our readers know, the crucial decisions to employ reconciliation emerged not from the Reaganites' need to pass their program but from the Democrats' desire to make the budget process meaningful. "For a chairman or anyone else to say he won't cooperate [in 1981] is not an option," declared James Jones. "The Speaker agrees with that. The budget process will prevail."[4]

House support for reconciliation came from a group of moderate Democrats, like Leon Panetta, who believed that process was necessary for responsible budgeting. Other leaders, such as Rules Chairman Bolling, who agreed with Jones on little else, did not want the party to appear to be using procedural tricks to thwart the president. Therefore, in spite of resistance by many who fought reconciliation in 1980, there was never any doubt that the House would reconcile in 1981. The 1981 reconciliation procedure differed from 1980's in two ways: the instructions required savings over a three-year period, and the process was extended


from entitlements and taxes to authorizations for nonentitlement programs.

Much of the 1980 reconciliation had solved the FY81 problem by spreading reductions over future fiscal years. Robert Reischauer, former assistant director of CBO, explains:

Both OMB Director Stockman and the Budget Committees had learned a lesson from Congress' initial experiment with reconciliation in FY 1981. In this experiment the tax-writing committees had circumvented the spirit of the one-year reconciliation instructions and had obtained some of their required savings by pushing year-end Medicare payments into the next fiscal year; other committees had reported legislation that provided only temporary savings.[5]

The major tax change in 1980 had involved a one-time revenue increase by changing the payment date for corporate estimated taxes.[6] Because the budget now included three-year spending and revenue projections, three-year reconciliation made sense. Democratic budgeters approved the shift.

Multiyear reconciliation could be quite significant, for budgeting was now no longer annual; decisions taken in 1981 would change events in FY84. The ideas were extending control and preventing some budgetary games; however, there were some drawbacks. Multiyear budgeting must rely on multiyear economic forecasts, whereas forecasters are even less able to project three years ahead than to predict the next year. As for preventing games, where committees pushed next year's spending into the following year, we will see that the move to a three-year budget focus, as the British treasury discovered when it tried something similar,[7] just meant that smart actors would push the same kind of action into the fourth year.

In 1981 there was little debate over the switch to multiyear reconciliation. House Democrats never did agree to reconciling discretionary program authorizations as well as entitlements; on that they had to be beaten on the floor. Reconciling authorizations may be necessary if you want to cut before appropriations are passed, making cuts that will last for more than one year. It so vastly increases the reach of the budget process that authorizing committee members of both parties disapproved. It also makes it hard to tell what, exactly, is being cut.

Because appropriations rarely call for amounts as high as those in authorizations, it is hard to project accurately the reductions involved in an authorization cut. The Senate solved this problem by comparing its new authorization levels to the CBO "current policy" projection—existing spending plus an estimate for inflation—of the likely appropriation. In the political circumstances of 1981, however, the assumption that


appropriations committees would give all programs an inflation adjustment was dubious. Stockman, for one, did not believe it. After the bill was passed, he remarked to Greider that "there was less there than met the eye. Nobody has figured it out yet. Let's say that you and I walked outside and I waved a wand and said, I've just lowered the temperature from 110 to 78. Would you believe me? … The government never would have been up at those levels in the CBO base."[8] Reconciliation of authorizations for discretionary programs was both more and less than it seemed: more permanence, less reductions.

Aside from objecting to reconciling discretionary program authorizations, the Democrats, of course, objected to the budget resolution assumptions about where cuts would be made. Unlike in 1980, therefore, Speaker O'Neill was willing to allow amendments during final floor consideration. This time he encouraged liberals to fight for their programs. "If it breaks the budget," O'Neill declared, "then that's the will of Congress. We are not going to roll over and play dead." Disagreeing, Budget Committee Chairman Jones argued that the Democrats' credibility required conforming to the instructions. "Tip wants to protect programs," Leon Panetta summed up the dispute, "and Jones wants to protect the process."[9] Until the committees met the June 12 deadline for reporting their proposals, however, decisions about possible amendments could wait.

When the House committees met, a number reached a consensus among their Democrat and Republican members. Bipartisanship in committee did not, however, guarantee a result the administration would like. The Interior Committee, for example, following its Senate counterpart, rejected the administration's plan to cut funding for purchase of new park land, cutting instead from other Interior Department programs; Public Works and Transportation cut aid to highways more than requested, met the targets for Economic Development Administration outlays but far exceeded them on budget authority, and refused to stop work on three major water projects. If the administration did not like the results, it would have to force Republican members of those committees to reject their own handiwork—not a good way to win their votes.

In devising the Gramm-Latta budget resolution, Stockman had proposed specific cuts to fit the resolution totals. "To remain consistent with the architecture of the Reagan Revolution fiscal plan," in Stockman's idiosyncratic view, the committees had to cut exactly the items on the "included" list. Those cuts alone were "legitimate"; Stockman blasts the "hirelings" at CBO for allowing the committees to count "unreconciled" cuts toward the reconciliation targets.[10] Ways and Means, for instance, planned $27 billion in cuts over three years instead of the expected $30 billion, but Stockman's real problem was where the cuts were made: "The


bill had achieved only $16 billion, or half of the instruction savings."[11] In short, they were instructed, in Stockman's mind, to make specific changes in the law; other changes were cheating.

Actually, reconciliation "instructions" consisted only of totals.[12] Reconciliation instructions in the budget resolution contained not a word about AFDC or unemployment benefits or any specific cuts. Instead, each committee had two categories of targets: (a) savings from entitlements and (b) savings by reduced authorizations on annually appropriated programs. What Stockman calls "instructions" were the assumptions or suggestions made, not in the resolution, but in the conference report that accompanied it. Members treated them as they had always treated the assumptions used to justify budget totals. Members fought over them because having something in a report is better (or worse) than having nothing at all. But nobody believed report language was final; thus, Bob Michel could tell his members that problems could be fixed later, and the Speaker could plan a challenge in later rounds.

Stockman's interpretation of the process was far more revolutionary than desired by any semblance of a majority of the House. When he began to talk about assembling a substitute bill, his colleagues, particularly those whose committees had reached bipartisan agreement, reasonably started muttering about his dictatorial manner.

Seven committees, however, controlling most of the spending, could not agree. In Energy and Commerce, a committee that tilted toward the boil weevils, three Democrats—Gramm, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, and James D. Santini of Nevada—sided with the Republicans against Chairman John Dingell's proposal, leaving the committee deadlocked at 21 to 21. Therefore, Chairman Dingell and ranking member James Broyhill (R-N.C.) each submitted plans to the budget committee, a quirk that may have been decisive in the outcome. In six other committees, majority Democrats made choices that Republicans could either not accept or at least try to avoid. Some were phantom cuts; some were real but immensely unpopular; some were just different.

The Agriculture Committee cut food stamps by the full $1.458 billion demanded by putting a cap on appropriations for the program. Because this altered neither benefit nor eligibility rules, the change was no more real than any of the many previous caps on food stamps, all of which had led to supplemental appropriations that exceeded the caps. That committee also reported $167 million in reduced Agriculture Department salaries and expenses through a 15 percent personnel reduction. Of course, it is always easier to attack the bureaucrats, but here even OMB warned that this slash would hamper department services.

The stakes in the Banking Committee were complicated by the fact that most programs spent their appropriations over a long period. Budget


authority—for the Export-Import Bank, community development, or housing rent subsidies—would pay for the interest subsidies on long-term loans, fund projects that would take ten years to build, or subsidize rents over the next thirty years in the units authorized this year. Differences in FY82 outlays, therefore, were far less important than differences in budget authority. A $40 million difference between the House and Senate in housing outlays was actually a $2.7 billion difference in budget authority, reflecting the Senate's decision to subsidize 150,000 new units compared to the House's decision to subsidize 176,000. In order to pay for the extra costs over the period covered by the reconciliation, only a small portion of the thirty years over which rent subsidies would be required, the House committee cut the Export-Import Bank by $1.1 billion more than the Senate had. OMB's attack on the Democratic plan declared that it "would have the effect of shutting down all new lending operations … with severe consequences for U.S. foreign trade." Had Stockman changed his mind about Ex-Im? No, but he was more interested in cutting housing. "In short-order advocacy," one colleague explains, "one uses the arguments that the audience will find convincing."

The Science and Technology Committee took the opportunity of their small expected changes in energy research to forward legislation that would close down the Clinch River breeder nuclear reactor project. This was another project that Stockman considered an absolute boondoggle (though it goes without saying that he, like many others, may have been mistaken), but it was in Tennessee and very important to Howard Baker; now Stockman objected when the Democrats did something he had previously proposed.

Stockman objected to the Ways and Means Committee's package because the House Democrats suggested (of all things) giving only half the 1982 social security COLA in July and the rest in October; they used the $1.9 billion savings to preserve some benefits in AFDC, ignoring the administration's proposed consolidation and reduction of social-services grants. Hardly anybody believed the administration's claim that added flexibility from its proposals would make up for a 25 percent reduction in funding for those grants. Cutting social security was a serious policy choice, but it could also be a version of the "Washington Monument" game: a cut rousing such protest had to be rejected now or repealed later.[13]

The members of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee (HPO&CS) were specialists in creative compliance. Rather than switching from semiannual to annual COLA for Civil Service Retirement—that issue again—the House committee proposed ending another aspect of retirement law that frequently came under fire: "double dipping," in


which military retirees collected their military retirement while still working on the civilian side of government. Civil Service pay would be reduced by the full amount of the military retirement pension. Besides the possible inequity of changing the rules on those veterans in midstream, the catch was that the estimated $870 million in savings would disappear if affected employees then quit the federal service and took jobs in the private sector. Most might not, but nobody knew. As with social security COLAs, the cut itself was not a scam; budget analysts had been protesting the double dip for years. But the administration had reason to doubt the savings would really materialize.

In the Post Office area of its jurisdiction, HPO&CS was expected to find $956 million in savings. Postmaster General William F. Bolger thought this much could be saved by allowing a nine-digit zip code. Neither authorizing committee liked that idea; instead, the House committee suggested closing 10,000 small post offices. This cut had long been suggested by observers, even by the Postal Service itself. The difficulty was not in its merits; it had not and would not come to pass because it was extremely unpopular. People like to have nearby post offices. To minimize the resulting pain, the House committee provided that the Postal Service would submit a plan for the office closings, which either house could veto within sixty days of its submission. It was widely suspected that such a veto was inevitable; thus, in the end, there would be no cut.

The most complicated maneuvering went on in the Education and Labor Committee where the leadership had to pressure the dominant liberals into complying with reconciliation. Chairman Carl Perkins of Kentucky reported that the committee voted for cuts because he was assured that floor amendments would be allowed; Perkins did not want a plan drafted by those whose "hard-hearted actions … brought us to this situation in the first place." Once it agreed to cut, the committee decided to slash those programs that Republicans or boll weevils most favored, on the theory that it would be nearly impossible for such cuts to survive on the floor. Impact Aid, most useful in areas with military installations (i.e., the South), was closed down; student loans were banned for families with incomes over $25,000 a year; 25 percent of the elderly who received nutrition support would lose it; and 68,000 children would be removed from the Head Start program. In short, the Education and Labor Committee went after the more middle-class programs, those serving categories whose legitimacy (unlike people on "welfare" or in public service jobs) was difficult to challenge. The chairman, representing a coal-mining area, was the main sponsor of the black-lung disability pension program; he used reconciliation as a chance to deal with the financial problems of that fund, which was projected to have a $2 billion deficit


by the end of FY82. Rather than follow budget instructions to save $60 million through eligibility tightening, he added a new fee on coal sales that would raise $553 million; he now had an extra half a billion dollars to give back to other programs.[14]

When you do not want to go there, wherever it is, many paths will take you to some other place. The committee Democrats were meeting the targets but not ending up where Stockman wanted them. The proper analogy for the reconciliation battle of 1981, however, is not that of a traveler but rather a series of military maneuvers: you try to get somewhere, but have to face an opposing army with other ideas; where you end up depends on relative resources and who maneuvers best. Perkins and, originally, the Speaker felt that they could best protect liberal programs by first playing the Washington Monument game on a grand scale and then allowing amendments to restore funds. Jones, who wanted to meet the budget's targets because he thought the Democrats should not be seen to obstruct a stronger budget process, disagreed; he wanted a closed rule, allowing no amendments: Take it or leave it. O'Neill's strategy was also questioned by both liberals and moderates at a May 20 Democratic caucus meeting. Some liberals felt O'Neill's approach might let Republicans off the hook by giving them a chance to vote to fund the more popular programs; or that the middle-class programs with greater Republican support would be restored and poor people's programs would not. Some budget balancers wanted to allow "zero-sum" amendments, restoring social cuts but compensating with reductions in other programs. While the Education and Labor Committee drafted its plan, assuming it would, as the Speaker promised, be alterable on the floor by amendments, support for such tactics steadily eroded within the caucus.

Thus in early June, seeing that most committees would not cut the budget as they had desired when drafting the Gramm-Latta Budget Resolution, Stockman and Gramm decided to produce what they called a "Son of Gramm-Latta" reconciliation bill, which others would call Gramm-Latta 2. OMB staff began the drafting secretly. On June 2, when he met with the president and GOP leaders, Stockman harshly criticized the emerging committee bills; he won approval from Minority Leader Michel for a round of meetings with committee Republicans to present the administration's case. Echoing other Republicans, Michel declared that "a committee has to have some latitude to do its thing" but added that, "if the committee system does not work, we should be backed up with a substitute to conform to the budget resolution."[15] In private, he insisted that Stockman downplay threats of an alternative.[16] Stockman then held another meeting with leaders of the GOP/boll weevil coalition in which his "pitch for this comprehensive substitute to the committee


reconciliation bills elicited a torrent of criticism." Michel concluded that OMB should keep on with its drafting but also keep quiet. Committee sensibilities had to be protected. As Stockman reports,

"We can't have the appearance that this is being written downtown," [Michel] said. He told his aide, Billy Pitts, to mobilize the minority staff on each committee to begin drafting a substitute bill to cover each of their jurisdictions.

"Make sure OMB has complete input," he admonished Pitts, "but it's got to be written on our typewriters."

It was a start, but his orders were ambiguous. The committee staff could—indeed, would—deduce that it was a mandate to draw up the bill their way, as long as they let OMB put in its two bits.[17]

On June 12 Michel, Gramm, and Latta announced their agreement on a framework for a substitute. By late Saturday, June 13, Stockman had a draft of a plan almost identical to the budget resolution "instructions"/assumptions.[18] By that time it seemed that the Education and Labor plan was heating up objections to the overall package, for other Democrats did not want a substitute to destroy their committees' work just because Education and Labor had gone too far. Jones claimed on June 15 to have the backing of thirteen committee heads for a closed rule forbidding a substitute. Such committees as Agriculture and Post Office, for example, could afford to let their bills be passed because the kinks in their packages, as designed, could be dealt with later. Education and Labor, however, did not want a closed rule because the committee did not want to cut Head Start and had not included ways to get the cuts to self-destruct.[19]

Responding to these other committees, the leadership pressed Perkins to "persuade his Education and Labor Committee Democrats to revise their reconciliation report so that no floor amendments would be necessary."[20] Education and Labor restored impact aid and Head Start money, allowed student loans regardless of income (the Senate had put on a "needs" test), and restored some money for the elderly. Instead, committee Democrats slashed another $1 billion from public service jobs and about $400 million in miscellaneous programs. The adjustments moved the package toward the administration but not near enough.

At Stockman's instigation, President Reagan, at his June 16 press conference, the first since his wounding, called the House package "unconscionable." "This is a fine time to start picking and choosing between who's being hurt by a $37 billion cut," retorted Leon Panetta.[21] Speaker O'Neill denounced as "dictatorial" the president's attempt to impose his own details. Democrats stressed that 85 percent of the cuts in the package


were either recommended by the administration or approved previously by the House.[22]

Even if some committees had pretty much ignored Republican preferences, the idea of a substitute drafted by OMB, bypassing the committee system altogether, did not sit well even with GOP legislators. In spite of their earlier win on the budget resolution, the administration's strategists knew they could lose. Richard Darman assessed the stakes in a memo to the president on June 17: winning would provide momentum and an increased perception of Reagan's leadership and commitment; losing would have the opposite effect. "The votes for Gramm-Latta II are not there now," Darman wrote, "and it will take a major effort to get them." The president chose to take the risk.[23] There were also risks in doing nothing. Success with the tax bill, linchpin of his whole package, was still in doubt; a win on reconciliation could create momentum for that fight. Final passage of the tax bill, by agreement with Senate leaders, depended on making the spending cuts. But that in turn required conference agreement on reconciliation, which could be very difficult if the two houses passed very different bills—a point emphasized by Senator Domenici.[24]

The issues were so complex that Reagan's aides did not believe this was a good place to employ Reagan's television skills.[25] Although sixty-three Democrats had sided with the Republicans on Gramm-Latta 1, only about forty showed up when a breakfast was organized for those defectors.[26] Meanwhile, at least fourteen gypsy moths were unhappy with a number of administration proposals and bargained for changes.[27] In a meeting of the Conservative Democratic Forum, Ed Jenkins of Georgia pounced on Phil Gramm for repeating the Reagan and Stockman claims that the Democratic cuts were fraudulent. "We're still Democrats," he fumed. "And if you can't live with that, you ought to go work with Stockman and become a bureaucrat."[28] Both boll weevil and mainline Democrats said that Reagan could count on about twenty boll weevil votes.[29] But twenty was not the needed twenty-seven. Besides, provisions designed to lure the conservative boll weevils, now that the votes were about real cuts, might only alienate the more liberal gypsy moths. Michel led rounds of negotiations with Republicans on each committee, with the gypsy moths, and with the administration to develop a package from which no Republicans would defect.

One's view of those negotiations depends on who you are. To Stockman, Republican gypsy moths were demanding an unconscionable list of concessions. He saw Bill Green of New York as "the chief trouble-maker of the lot."[30] Green reported that he and his colleagues had simply "fought for the programs most important to our region and met with considerable success."[31] Medicaid, mass transit operating assistance,


guaranteed student loans, energy conservation, and the Legal Services Corporation were among the programs on which Stockman had to compromise. Stockman reports as well that Republican committee staffs were a "smoldering hotbed" of revolt. No doubt they felt they were doing their job, drafting legislation that reflected their members' preferences.

"Fluid" hardly describes the situation; turbulent comes closer. Republicans were having a hard time finding enough votes. After a series of meetings on June 17 and 18, however, Michel won a crucial change: the administration would challenge only the seven committees on which Republicans had not helped to produce the HBC plan. Hence Republicans on the other committees would not face a direct challenge from their own party and president. Instead, Republicans, cut out of committee deliberation, were now getting a voice in the administration substitute.[32]

Republican amendments, announced on June 19, largely involved entitlements: of the more than $18 billion in added cuts in entitlements over three years, over $12 billion would come from programs that served mainly lower- and lower-middle income groups.[33] Republicans restored funding in a number of areas to attract boll weevils—for example, the Clinch River reactor and Impact Aid.

The Budget Committee had no formal authority to modify the other committees' plans. Nevertheless, its Democratic majority removed the provision for a later vote on shutting down the 10,000 post offices. The Budget Committee also added the Dingell package of Energy and Commerce Committee cuts. Because Energy and Commerce had divided evenly, Budget suggested that the Rules Committee allow the alternative package, sponsored by Joel Broyhill (R-N.C.), to be voted on as an amendment. Otherwise, Budget requested a closed rule.[34]

While a majority of Democrats strongly supported preventing amendments, enough objected to the closed rule that a whip poll suggested it might not pass.[35] Besides, additional cuts proposed by the Republicans did not seem popular. Why not allow amendments, but only for those further cuts? The Speaker could have some "beautiful" votes, not on Democratic proposals to remove cuts from a package (the original idea), but on Republican efforts to increase them. There could be votes on extra Republican slashing of the poor, the students, the hungry, and less sympathetic (but perhaps more powerful) groups like federal employees. The prospect was too tempting; the leadership changed its mind and had the Rules Committee produce a new rule.

The rule was announced on June 24, and it was a beauty. Not one but six Republican amendments would be in order. Each would include some less popular changes; none would include the "sweeteners"—which,


after all, would increase spending—that the Republicans had inserted to win votes, such as targeting impact aid and increasing funding for the Export-Import Bank. The president's supporters would have to separately approve cutting food stamps, "capping" medicaid, housing cuts, federal employee COLA changes, deeper cuts in child nutrition and student loans, cuts in AFDC and social security. Furious, knowing that if the vote occurred as the rule intended they would lose, Republicans and boll weevils would have to fight to change the rule, the Speaker's strongest ground. If the GOP indeed could count on only twenty boll weevils to begin with, it would be a very close fight.

Stockman feels the new rule actually did him a favor. Republicans were so angry, he writes, that "it got their partisan dander up, and for the first time in weeks they felt that the enemy was the Democrats, not me."[36] Steven Smith reminds us that if a few Republicans had defected, and if that had been enough to beat their president, they would have been left with an awesome responsibility. The vote was bound to be partisan.

The White House lobbyists' count on the evening of June 24 showed the Republicans several votes short.[37] The president, when he heard of the Democrats' plan, inserted an attack on them into his speech at the National Junior Chamber of Commerce convention in San Antonio. "Without these added reductions," he proclaimed, "we will have nearly $22 billion of red ink, an unbalanced budget and a more inflationary pressure in the next few years…. It's a sad commentary on the state of the opposition, when they have to resort to a parliamentary gimmick to thwart the will of the people."

Jim Wright declared that what was at stake was "the right to make a choice," that Congress owed the president cooperation but "not … obeisance, obedience, and submissiveness."[38] The president was invoking popular sovereignty; the Democratic leaders were invoking separation of powers. Both sides waved the banner of the public good; Democrats called on party loyalty, while the president asked waverers what he could do to help them with their particular problems.

The question was, What have you done for me lately? And Ronald Reagan would not be found wanting. He found six Texas Democrats at dinner with home-state utility executives in the University Club. He didn't talk to Martin Frost, a party loyalist, but spoke to each of the other five. "At least three of them—Ralph Hall, Charles Wilson and Jack Hightower—were on the fence until they heard from the president, even though they voted with him on the budget resolution in May," according to Frost.[39] Reagan called at least nineteen congressmen in the final day of lobbying. On some, as they reported, he used soft sell:


Rep. Charles Wilson conceded he was going to stick with his party on the procedural vote Thursday, but a telephone call from the president helped persuade him otherwise. Wilson said the president told him, "You've gone this far with me, it would be a shame after we took all this heat to lose it now."

But Wilson said Reagan also asked him, "Is there anything you're really interested in that you'd like to talk about?" Yes, replied Wilson, synfuels. The administration's sharp cuts in federal subsidies for these projects troubled him. The congressman said the gist of Reagan's reaction was, "My door's open. Come on over and talk when this is over."[40]

It is nice to be president; just being friendly and showing interest can make a member of Congress feel like progress is being made. John Breaux of Louisiana was more demanding. "I went with the best deal," he declared after he extracted from the president a rather vague promise not to oppose sugar price supports in the House's later consideration. This was not exactly the same as support for the sugar subsidy, but it was a distinct change of administration position, made the morning of the crucial vote on the rule, potentially costing consumers $2.2 billion annually (but costing nothing if liberals in the House managed to kill the program on their own).[41] Breaux and Billy Tauzin (D-La.) claimed that the sugar switch determined their vote. When asked if that meant he could be bought, Breaux replied, "No, but I can be rented."[42]

By including in the revised package extra money for medicaid ($350 million), $400 million more in low-income fuel assistance, $260 million more for mass transit and some extra for Conrail, the administration also bid for the support of the gypsy moths.[43] Because it was a party matter, and they did not much like the Democrats' tactics, the gypsy moths were likely to back the administration on the rule fight. They also were won over by a sense that they could not be nailed as hard-hearted budget slashers because the Democrats themselves had gone so far in that direction.[44]

As time for the vote approached, the president expected to lose. His speech, written for that evening in Los Angeles, included a lot of "we shall fight on the beaches" rhetoric designed to show determination in the face of defeat.[45] In a battle fraught with drama and bitterness, Bolling's motion for the previous question, preventing amendment to the Democratic rule, was voted down, 217 to 210. The Republican substitute rule, allowing separate votes on the Gramm-Latta package and on the Energy and Commerce (Broyhill) section, was adopted, 214 to 208. The president had won his gamble; he changed his speech.

Gramm-Latta 2, made available only the next morning, was a hastily stapled, scribbled-on mass that included the phone number of a CBO staffer and a raft of provisions whose meaning was at best unclear. But


its basic drift was clear enough for members to make their choices. Newsweek estimated that "the projected Reagan savings melted from nearly $22 billion to $12 billion as sweeteners were offered, some handwritten, into his draft bill."[46] Dennis Farney of the Wall Street Journal got the story right:

The highest stakes in the battle aren't dollars, as unprecedented as the deep cuts are. The highest stakes involve legislative policy and the opportunity Mr. Reagan has to rewrite in a single bill scores of programs affecting millions of citizens. Because of yesterday's victory, Mr. Reagan now has the opportunity to achieve much of his domestic legislative program before the House recesses for the Fourth of July—and without ever submitting the package to the scrutiny of House committees.[47]

House Democrats had given in to fiscal restraint, but they had tried to cushion and direct the blow; they had come within inches of victory, only to lose because of twenty-nine defectors, some of whom they had expected to hold. Their bitterness ran deep: "Traitor," "Judas," "You sold out to the fat cats." "Don't ever speak to me again." "It's amazing what a call from the president does to people who otherwise have character."[48] William Brodhead convened a meeting of the executive committee of the Democratic Study Group to make recommendations for enforcing party discipline, possibly including revoking committee memberships, such as Representative Gramm's on Budget.

The final vote was yet to come. Stockman had been dealing on the details of Gramm-Latta 2 up to the last moment before the vote on the rule. "We ain't gonna make it," Bill Thomas, Republican of California, told him, "unless you open the soup kitchen." Unable to tell if the waverers Thomas spoke of would really defect or were just holding him up for more goodies, Stockman held his nose and went for a final half-dozen deals.[49]

Assembled in such a last minute rush, the Republican substitute so grossly violated congressional standards of draftsmanship that Democrats hoped to evoke legislative pride, especially among senior southerners, to switch a few votes.[50] In the confusion, liberal leader Phil Burton (D-Calif.) was reported to have surreptitiously obtained the draft so his side could have a first chance to figure out what was in it. A Democratic leader (no friend of the late Burton) later claimed that "if Phil Burton hadn't been screwing things up, we might have won. … Somehow he got a hand on it, and we lost our virtue, the claim that we were better than they were." Perhaps that blunted Democrats' claim that Republicans were not playing by the rules with their ludicrous-looking draft; perhaps not. The vote was so close that anything might have altered it.


The Gramm-Latta 2 amendment passed 217 to 211, almost the same as the crucial rule vote (217 to 210). The similar numbers, however, hid some flux. Five Democrats who had voted with the Republicans on the rule then opposed Latta's amendment, while five other Democrats supported Latta on June 26 after supporting their party on June 25. If the Democrats had held nine of those ten waverers on either vote, they would have won. The closeness of Reagan's margin was shown again when, in a complicated maneuver, Jones tried to get the bill recommitted to require changes in social security, student loans, and block grants; he failed by only 215 to 212.

Then came the separate vote on the Energy and Commerce provisions. The Republicans had spent all day dickering for support for the Broyhill provisions. Four Democrats who voted for the president on the rule, however, had cut a separate deal with Dingell involving natural gas issues. They did not want to back out of the deal with their chairman, one of the tougher characters on the Hill. A number of gypsy moths preferred Dingell's version because it did not cut medicaid so severely. Ultimately it seemed as if Dingell had the votes. The Republicans chose not to offer the Broyhill plan. "It was one of those decisions," Stockman recalled, "made in about four minutes as a result of sheer chemistry—the time of the day, the sequence of events, how tired the players are. Basically it was the right decision because if we had lost it, we also might have lost the whole reconciliation bill on final passage."[51] Preserving the appearance of control of the floor was vital for preserving actual control.

The tactics worked; when the reconciliation bill was voted on as amended, it passed 232 to 193. The wider margin occurred because a number of Democratic committee leaders, sure that the bill would pass, wanted to guarantee themselves a role in what would be a highly complicated conference with the Senate. These votes also ensured that Phil Gramm did not get to that conference. James Jones explained, "We had to go pretty much on seniority, and we couldn't name Stockman."[52]

All but a very few members voted ideology and party. But the balance on those lines was so close that a few defections either way could determine the result.[53] Legislators exploited the closeness of the vote to win concessions from the side they were likely to support anyway. Boll weevil leader Charles Stenholm, for instance, got a solar energy plant in his district. Ultimately, the victory had less to do with what Reagan himself did than with the idiosyncrasies of a small group of House members.

The administration was so nervous about its slender margin that it feared bringing the bill back from conference for another vote. Two of Howard Baker's staffers later wrote that "many planners, particularly David Stockman, did not believe these coalitions would endure or could be rebuilt for the vote on the conference report. Consequently, the administration


undertook a major campaign to persuade the Senate to accept the House bill."[54] Ronald Reagan asked Baker on July 17 to accept the House version. But when the Senate leader met with his chairmen the next day, he found them distinctly unenthusiastic about the idea. First, they had worked hard for many things in the Senate bill and did not wish to give them up. Second, the hastily prepared Gramm-Latta 2 needed considerable technical cleaning up; the Senate's leaders had reports that many of the bill's supporters had voted for it assuming the conference would fix the glitches. They unanimously rejected Reagan's plea and went to conference.[55]

We have already seen why there might be doubts about Gramm-Latta's drafting. The other side of the Senate's resistance to Reagan requires a short description of the Senate bill.

There was never any doubt that the Senate's package would closely resemble Reagan's. The major exception was in some block grant proposals. Congress just does not like to give up its voice in programs. Consequently, in the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, two liberal Republicans, Lowell Weicker and Robert Stafford, sided with the Democrats to water down the block grant plans. Noting a general lack of enthusiasm for the whole idea, the administration decided not to challenge the committee's decision. Beyond the block grant issue, there was little Senate conflict about the spending-cuts package.

For precisely that reason, however, the bill became the perfect vehicle to carry various riders. "People saw the train pulling out of the station," as Howard Baker put it, "and they just all got on."[56] Or, as Robert Reischauer describes it, "the committees ran amok, stuffing their reconciliation legislation with authorizations, reauthorizations, new regulations, and all sorts of 'extraneous' legislation."[57] Senate Democrats, particularly Byrd and Hollings, objected to this process just as Barber Conable had complained when House Democrats did the same a year before. After negotiations, the leaders agreed that Baker would offer an amendment stripping the bill of a wide variety of provisions; individual amendments would then be offered on the floor to restore a number of those to the bill. "If we are going to go down this road of including extraneous matter," Byrd explained, "I want it to be done here, on this floor—come in the front door and let every senator, with his eyes open, have a chance to vote on it as we now have in connection with adding legislation to an appropriation bill."[58] Only some deleted passages could be offered as amendments.[59] These latter provisions, in the jurisdictions of the Banking and Commerce committees, were in fact restored on the floor.

The conference itself lasted until July 28. It was of extraordinary size—184 House members and 72 senators meeting in 58 subconferences.


Yet it was remarkably calm and uncontentious. The only real controversy involved the social security minimum benefit. Both houses had endorsed repeal of this $122 per month payment, which OMB claimed largely benefited state and federal retirees who were covered by other plans but had also worked for a short time under social security. With the social security forces finally mobilized and pressuring legislators, Richard Bolling tried to get the conference to reopen the issue but was not supported by other House leaders. Instead, the House voted on a separate resolution to restore the benefit; it passed 404 to 20. The Senate then refused (57 to 30) to consider the motion. Perhaps they knew that they could gather no more votes than they had on June 26; perhaps process-oriented Democrats like James Jones were not willing to sabotage the reconciliation process at that late date; perhaps their defeat on the tax cut on July 29 left the Democrats with no desire to fight. That was the extent of Democratic maneuvering; House leaders didn't even bother calling for a recorded vote when, on July 31, Congress passed the conference report on the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1981.

How large were the reductions in the act? Truthfully, nobody knew. The most careful analysis of Reagan's policy, the Urban Institute's Changing Domestic Priorities Project, analyzed the changes for the entire year, rather than those in the reconciliation act alone. But many caveats included in the project report should be noted.

Congress made certain accounting shifts and mandated technical assumptions that led CBO's reported numbers to substantially exaggerate the impact on nondefense reductions. Largest among these was the shift of the strategic petroleum reserve to off-budget status…. However, the most egregious example of specious savings was the shift of $685 million in Medicare payments from the first month of FY 1982 to the last month of FY 1981, so that it would show up as 1982 budget savings. Congress had done just the reverse the year before when it wanted to show cuts in the 1981 budget. So credit was taken twice for a nonexistent reduction.[60]

Furthermore, as Stockman had noted, the CBO baseline assumed increases, to keep up with inflation, which probably would not have been made even without reconciliation. Not only was that adjustment to the baseline questionable, but inflation, as it turned out, was lower than predicted; the baseline, therefore, was too high to begin with. For all these reasons, the estimated FY82 reductions of $35.2 billion that emerged from the conference were certainly too high.

Nevertheless, no matter what the course of the economy, substantial changes in government policy would have both immediate effects on millions of Americans and long-term fiscal consequences: altering food stamp, AFDC, and unemployment compensation eligibility; encouraging


states to reduce medicaid costs; limiting hospital reimbursements for medicare; eliminating more than three years of impact aid except where children lived on federal property; terminating public service jobs; nearly terminating Trade Adjustment Assistance; substantially changing the school lunch program; arranging annual instead of biannual COLAs for Civil Service pensions; allowing higher tenant payments, stricter eligibility, and fewer units of subsidized housing; and terminating student and minimum social security benefits.

Whose bill was it, anyway? The common interpretation—that, as one Republican budget leader put it, "it was an administration package engineered with the boll weevils"—is a bit too convenient. It lets Republicans blame the pain they inflicted on the administration and allows Democrats to stigmatize the OBRA package as not merely bad policy but poor procedure. Ultimately Gramm-Latta 2 was drafted on the typewriters of Republican staffs of the affected committees. One of Stockman's colleagues expressed the OMB perspective in a way that fits the situation. When we asked if Gramm-Latta 2 were "assembled by OMB," he replied,

Would that that were true. We sent down a draft reconciliation bill. The minority staff directors were told to review the thing, and they stuffed in their own proposals…. A lot of those things had been on the Republican committee members' agendas for years. The Gramm-Latta section on education was the 1979 and 80 Asbrook [John, R-Ohio] higher education amendments. Everybody cleaned out their closet. In the first stage we cleaned out our closet, and in the second stage, the real stage, they cleaned out theirs.

The actual drafting of legislation, not its proposal, is, in fact, the "real" stage. There were no hearings, but most provisions of Gramm-Latta 2 had been floating around for years. Few understood many of the provisions, but then legislators rarely know what is in a bill. They count on colleagues and staff, committees or party, to alert them to problems, and, for the Republicans at least, the process was not really so different in 1981. The provisions for each committee were approved by that committee's Republicans. Thus, the decision to challenge only the sections committee Republicans had not approved was crucial. It was Reagan's victory, but it was Congress's bill. That is the bottom line: Congress did what it wanted. Gramm-Latta 2, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981, defined the boundaries of what Congress was willing to cut from domestic government.

Cosmos, it is said, is a special case of chaos. The reconciliation of 1981 looks like chaos, but there was direction. Between the district concerns of the boll weevils (who were glad to cut spending so long as agriculture


and water projects and impact aid and the military were protected) and the similar concerns of gypsy moths (who would support their party but not if it meant cutting transportation or fuel or education assistance in a way that looked as if they were really hurting their districts), the river of budget cuts was more channeled than its speed and turbulence suggested. Some committee heads were carried along kicking and screaming. Others grabbed logs, holding on to maintain the full panoply of benefits to which they were pledged, preserving a bit here, losing bits there. Amidst the pulling and hauling, trickery was joined to ideology; illusion became an instrument of policy. As if in a house of mirrors, expenditure cuts changed shape when looked at in different ways.

Stockman and perhaps others wish all the churning and illusion could have been circumvented by a few clean decisions. But that is neither American democracy nor Congress at work. Consent had to be built through a series of compromises, and those bargains (or agreements; the word used affects how the process sounds) defined the limits of consent in a democracy in which neither Ronald Reagan nor David Stockman was elected to provide a specific package of spending reductions.

The fuzzy areas would surely need settling. Stockman had his agenda of future cuts. Even what was seemingly agreed would be fought again, as the Democrats attempted to overturn the verdict of 1981. The losers did not consent to the result, and were almost as numerous as the winners. Getting it back would be difficult because they would have to beat a veto but, when conditions improved, the Speaker would try again. OBRA was only the first of many battles, but it was the biggest and the most decisive. The question for the future was: Would conflict be contained or expanded to a point where it threatened to break the budget process that, in its messy way, had produced Gramm-Latta 2?

Actually, there was another question for the future. All these domestic spending cuts had been justified in the name of a balanced budget. Yet Republicans had also rationalized that spending cuts would make room for tax reductions. If they cut taxes much, they might lose budget balance. Could they find some happy medium of lower taxes and a balanced budget?

The answer to both questions, whether they could find a happy medium and limit future conflict, depended on what would happen to the tax bill.


Starving the Public Sector: The Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981

How could the nation have gone from hope to gloom in less than two years? It is a critical question as the 1982 election approaches. Yet there is another, possibly more significant question to be asked: How could Mr. Reagan's economic plan have been enacted in the first place? For it was a program that lacked any sort of traditional constituency in Congress or in the Government, a program whose premises were challenged by conservative and liberal economists alike and that was widely characterized as a risky gamble with the nation's future .

The business and finance community, popularly considered to be great worriers about the budget, suppressed its anxiety on this occasion—being so eager to have their taxes cut. When the tax bill was passed, in August, that was celebrated as a great victory for the President. Yet there was never any doubt that a tax bill very much like the President's would pass. It is, after all, one of the hoary axioms of political life that a Congressman should and will vote for every tax cut. When the tax cut provides some relief for all taxpayers, and when it is certified as essential by the most conservative President in fifty years, its adoption is assured .

From one view the passage of the Conable-Hance, née Kemp-Roth, Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 is inexplicable, and from another inevitable. Weisman argues that few members of Congress actually believed in the supply-side theories that justified the reductions; Stein suggests that legislators like to give out benefits and, when encouraged by the president, have little reason not to do so. The journalist cites beliefs about the economy; the economist cites political truisms.

From President Reagan's perspective, politics always overwhelmed economics. Perhaps it is better to say that they both sprang from the same principles, which had little to do with economics as conceived by economists. Perhaps the tax cut would free productive energies previously chained by confiscatory tax rates. Certainly the obtrusive public sector could not grow any fatter if it were starved for funds. Whatever the short-term (or even permanent) fiscal effects, the tax cut could only


favor the individual over the government. That, in Ronald Reagan's mind, was what his revolution was all about, and so he fought for his tax cut with a certainty and persistence that overcame the doubts of his own staff and congressional allies. Large spending cuts might have passed without Ronald Reagan. The form of the final tax bill reflected the many contours of the American political process and the special circumstances of 1981. But the fact of the big individual rate reduction may be credited to the president.

"I had to subordinate my own feelings," recalled one senator. "I figured, Ronald Reagan was elected the Republican President. That was always in the back of my mind. I'm not here to pick a fight with a brand new President."[1] When Robert Dole suggested that some compromise might be necessary, he was reprimanded in a note from the hospitalized Reagan.

Reagan's reaction—rejection of any compromise—was loud and immediate. When White House aides wanted Reagan to know he might have to compromise, they had Barber Conable, Republican leader on Ways and Means, brief their boss on the political outlook. Conable reported that the president told him, "if he started compromising now, what was left over wouldn't look like his original program."[2] Conable couldn't argue with Reagan's tactical judgment. In all these cases, the president, by refusing to show any give, forced his somewhat reluctant allies to stand with him or against him; they stood with him.

Most Democrats believed that some tax relief was mandatory, not only to help the economy but also to lower taxes that had risen considerably in the previous three years. Between social security changes and bracket creep, a family of four with a 1977 income of $10,000 had seen its federal taxes rise from 10.2 percent to 13.8 percent of its income. In 1981 a 13.3 percent rise in inflation would cause a family of four earning $15,000 to lose $120 in real after-tax income.[3] The tax increase was highest for low- and middle-income workers.[4] As in 1980, most Democrats preferred smaller tax cuts distributed more to the lower end of the scale, but both policy and obvious political pressure meant they would produce some tax bill. As on spending, House Democrats could not simply stonewall.

Given uncertain control of the House and a Republican Senate and president, Ways and Means Chairman Rostenkowski's ideal had to be an agreement with Conable and Republicans on his committee. But Rostenkowski and other Ways and Means leaders, moderates used to bargaining across party lines, could not get a deal.

As a first cut, Rostenkowski adopted proposals justifiable on policy grounds and particularly attractive to Republicans. He proposed to reduce the "marriage penalty," in which, due to the progressive rate structure,


some couples who filed jointly paid more than if they lived together unmarried and filed separately. Rostenkowski also adopted estate tax reductions that some liberals disliked but were favored by a number of tax analysts. Most tellingly, the chairman and his staff decided to lower the top rate on capital income from 70 percent to 50 percent—a proposal that Reagan, on Meese's urging, had excluded from his program because it could be attacked as helping only the rich. The policy experts felt that, as one recalls, "to the extent that you wanted to stimulate investment, and there was not much money there anyway—nobody pays 70 percent—why don't we just go ahead and do it? We had studies showing that it would cost very little." "I guess it would be pretty hard for the Republicans to vote against that, wouldn't it?" asked Rostenkowski. "If Danny goes with that," Ways and Means Republican Bill Gradison commented, "he'll just steal the ball and make a basket."[5] So Rosty hoped to make his slamdunk as a few liberals watched with despair from the sidelines.

With Republicans quietly nervous and conservative Democrats loudly skeptical about the deficit effects of the Reagan package, Rostenkowski's strategy—targeted policy changes for a smaller total tax loss than Reagan planned—made sense. It fit conservative policy preferences; even better, polls repeatedly showed that the public, too, believed a balanced budget more important than a tax cut.

Yet Conable would not deal. He blamed the Democrats for having stacked Ways and Means—twenty-three Democrats to twelve Republicans—at the beginning of the year. Given the stakes—if the committee endorsed Kemp-Roth, the game was over—the leadership wanted some extra margin of safety. "I told Danny," Conable reported in March, "that he robbed me of my independence. So I've got to go with the administration to have any impact."[6] Ways and Means Republicans also hesitated to negotiate because nearly half the Republicans in the House had campaigned in support of Kemp-Roth. Rostenkowski and Conable, by many reports, were not the most congenial pair—the former a Chicago pol, the latter a more reserved self-conscious intellectual.

Conable had always preferred targeted savings incentives to across-the-board cuts because he believed, all other things being equal, people would spend rather than save. Conable never bought the argument that Kemp-Roth would increase savings. But he could see tax policy reasons to prefer rate cuts: preferences have to be paid for with higher rates, which in turn encourage tax avoidance and resentment.[7] A wider tax base means more compliance, less administrative problems, and generally less frustration involved with raising revenue; this policy, which Conable and everyone else abandoned in July, would shape the 1986 tax reform. But beyond the policy argument the Ways and Means Republicans


had one overwhelming reason to sit tight: Reagan had far more political weapons than Rostenkowski.

If the Democrats had the votes to beat Kemp-Roth, it was better for Republicans to keep quiet rather than to risk a fight with their new Republican president. Although Kemp-Roth was less than popular, there was certainly no outcry against it. On taxes as well as on spending, Ronald Reagan, with his veto and control of the Senate, was in a far better position to deliver on or to thwart any bargain than were House Ways and Means Democrats.

Republicans gained much momentum for the tax fight when they won on the first budget resolution (Gramm-Latta 1). "If the White House decides to go to bat on Kemp-Roth the way they did on the budget," Leon Panetta predicted, "they're going to get it."[8] At that time, however, the administration did not have the votes to pass its tax package in the House. Within the White House, the same deficit fears that fueled the ill-fated social-security initiative also fed worries about fiscal hemorrhage from the tax cut.

Don Regan and the Treasury had primary responsibility for negotiating with Congress. Regan, the salesman from Merrill Lynch, wanted to sell the president's program.

Senate Republican leaders Baker, Dole, and Domenici, worried about the deficit, also wanted to support the president. Their leanings fit their positions: Baker most interested in keeping his majority together; Domenici increasingly nervous about the deficit; Dole eager to pass a tax bill that satisfied his Finance Committee. Dole sent messages that 10-10-10 wouldn't fly; the final bill had to include other provisions of interest to his members.[9]

Senate Democrats were still out of the game. Senator Byrd appointed Bill Bradley (D-N. J.) to head a task force to write a Democratic plan; it went nowhere. Russell Long kept blaming Byrd for having prevented a tax cut back in 1980 when he thought it might have saved the Senate majority. Every man for himself. House Republicans had taken themselves out of play. The White House essentially took them for granted, concentrating on cutting a deal with either Rostenkowski or the House boll weevils. The Administration's difficulty was that Rosty had to satisfy House Democrats to maintain his chair, while the weevils were worried about deficits and leery of defecting from the Democratic party on taxes as well as spending.

President Reagan and his advisers met on May 12 to discuss strategy. The advisers thought Rostenkowski might accept a two-year bill. The president accepted both adoption of the 70/50 reduction for the top rate in unearned income, which the Democrats had kindly endorsed (thereby temporarily solving Reagan's equity problem) and proposals to reduce


the marriage penalty. These provisions as well as short-term deficit worries could be accommodated by reducing the first year's cut to 5 percent, making it a 5-10-10 package. But that was as far as the president would go, and he did not want to go that far if he could help it.

Reagan authorized Regan to continue separate negotiations with Rostenkowski and the boll weevils in pursuit of the new, unrevealed bottom line. The Treasury secretary would report to the Legislative Strategy Group (LSG). An LSG member explained, "We needed either to deal with Rosty, where he had to worry about his Democrats (to his left) or do what we eventually did, creating a coalition with the boll weevils on the floor. The approach we hit upon was to use the threat of a boll weevil floor fight as leverage for a deal with Rosty." Negotiations proliferated both between the administration and congressional factions and among House and Senate leaders. Meeting with four boll weevils, Regan concluded the weevils would "go for 5-10-10 and a couple of other little things."[10] Publicly the four southerners were noncommittal; they told Regan that they wanted to support a compromise from within their party, if possible, and that the membership of the Conservative Democratic Forum was split on the merits of Kemp-Roth. Rostenkowski, meanwhile, had been fattening his plan with more tax breaks, hoping thereby to attract wavering conservative Democrats and mainline Republicans. Among these temptations were reductions in the estate tax (justified as a particular burden on family farmers) and increases in the amount of money that could be placed in tax-free retirement plans (an investment incentive). Regan countered by offering Rostenkowski—and Dole, and boll weevil Kent Hance, a second-term Texan and member of Ways and Means who had assumed the role of mediator between southerners and the White House—a menu of items from the second planned tax bill in order to bring Rosty along on the three-year cut.

The bargaining had now taken a particularly bizarre turn; Rostenkowski was offering provisions to the House Republicans and boll weevils to avoid Kemp-Roth while Regan was offering them back to Rostenkowski to win support for the three-year cut. Rostenkowski, although he told reporters on May 27 that he might go for more than a one-year cut, was not willing to go for three. He met with Regan and Dole, who offered 5-10-10. Rostenkowski came back, "What about a two-year program instead of three?" And the Treasury secretary countered, "If I went to the President with that offer, I'd he fired."[11]

Rostenkowski went back to his committee and reported to a caucus of twenty-three Democrats on the state of the negotiations. All but one rejected compromise on the available terms; "If that's the bottom line," Richard Gephardt declared, "then there are no further negotiations."[12] Only two members favored even a two-year cut.


Rostenkowski relished the fact that business lobbyists had to learn to pronounce his long Polish name; he wanted to be a powerful chairman of Ways and Means, which meant, as he told his caucus on June 4, winning on the tax bill. He wasn't interested in being a principled loser: "Look, I want a tax bill that can win." Rostenkowski contrasted himself to his good friend, the Speaker, in an interview with Martin Schram of the Post: "Tip stands solid like an oak because he's got a basically liberal chemistry and he's got great pride in protecting what has been built in the last thirty years by the Democratic Party. I'm still at liberty to be the palm. I can sway."[13]

Unlike James Jones, who had been out in front on budget and tax issues (in a conservative direction) long before he became Budget chairman, Dan Rostenkowski had no obvious, set views on most issues that came before his committee. But his interest in winning above all led him, like Jones, to search continually for grounds of compromise with either Republicans or conservative Democrats on his committee.[14] Rostenkowski's career also revealed no objections to dealing with interest groups, whether hospitals or commodity traders or the savings and loan industry; searching for support, therefore, his willingness to use provisions that favored business groups was not out of character. Were concessions to other groups required for victory, he would have made those, too.

President Reagan told Democratic leaders on June 1, "Three years is a matter of principle with me. I'm already backed in a corner and I can't back up any more." Speaker O'Neill challenged Reagan's recitation of the supply-side premises, "Mr. President, you don't really believe that!" And he concluded, "If you roll us, you roll us."[15] The Speaker told reporters that there was no hope of compromise, though Rostenkowski still claimed it was possible. Seeing a picture in the paper of the glum Rostenkowski, Reagan sent him a note: "Honest, Danny," wrote the president, "things aren't that bad…. Come on back—we'll try again. Warm regards, Ron."[16] It was classic Reagan—friendly, personable, but behind that, unyielding.

Democratic leaders were split, with O'Neill adamant for a one-year cut, Wright arguing for a 5-5-5, and Rostenkowski leaning again toward two years. Both Ways and Means Democrats and the Conservative Democratic Forum caucused on June 2. The first group reached a loose consensus for a 5-10 plan; the second agreed to Reagan's idea of proportionately equal cuts but were split between supporters of two and three years. The next day the Ways and Means Democrats settled on a 5 percent cut on October 1, 1981, and 10 percent on July 1, 1982. The National Journal reported, "Many opposed a three-year cut out of fear that it would severely limit funds for social spending programs."[17] Southerners


Ed Jenkins and Ken Holland endorsed the plan.[18] Only one Ways and Means Democrat did not: Kent Hance, the second-term conservative from a very conservative Texas district who, like Gramm, had reaped a plum committee assignment as part of Jim Wright's effort to win over the boll weevils. "Hance was fidgeting in the corner, still on the fence," a participant recalls, "and we knew he had a meeting that afternoon at the White House." If he went, Hance knew his relationships with other members of the committee might never be the same; that afternoon he finalized his agreement with the administration.

The Die Is Cast: June 3–9, 1981

The day after telling Rostenkowski to "come on back," the president took the boll weevil option. The new package, announced on June 4, was cosponsored by Hance and Conable—a forced marriage if ever there was one, since Conable saw Hance as a pork-barreling oilman. At a breakfast that morning, Reagan told the southerners that though he could not prevent Republican opposition in their districts, if they supported the new bill, he would not campaign against them. That was one enticement; another was that Conable-Hance managed a smaller deficit than the original plan, while still adding some of Rostenkowski's appetizers.

Hance had suggested postponing the effective date of the individual cut as well as reducing the first year to 5 percent. He accepted a three-month delay, matching the Democrats' schedule, in return for a $700 million tax break for oil producers.[19] The deficit projections were reduced, however, by deleting some parts of the original business tax package—precisely what Conable, and many other traditional Republicans, cared about most. Stockman was encouraged: the new steps "were consistent with good tax policy and also reduced the revenue loss by tens of billions of dollars in the out-years."[20] But it was not to last.

Policy on depreciation involves formulas for estimating the useful lives of categories of capital plant. The rule for any item thus becomes part of the price the business pays for it. The inflation of the 1970s fueled demands for more generous depreciation rules, both because companies' assets were being overvalued and because more generous depreciation would lower the after-tax price of new investment. A lower price in theory would mean more investment and, eventually, more productivity. A crucial segment of Democrats—Jim Jones, Lloyd Bentsen, and Representative Sam Gibbons (the number-two man on Ways and Means)—wanted to liberalize depreciation rules on these grounds. Traditional Republicans like Barber Conable agreed.

The 10-5-3 accelerated depreciation plan reduced the many categories


and useful lives of equipment developed by the Treasury and Congress over the years to three categories: ten-year, five-year, and three-year writeoffs. Businesses loved the idea because most items could be depreciated much faster under 10-5-3 than under existing law. A series of other provisions, particularly tax credits, in the package made it even more attractive.[21] The Treasury Tax Policy staff, and their political leaders, were less enamored. In the words of one participant, "It was considered too simplistic, too meat-ax. Machinery and equipment do have different useful lives. And it was too generous, it created negative tax rates." In essence, the government would give companies money to invest.

The argument blaming declining productivity growth on too little investment was dubious to begin with. The Commerce Department reported: in 1980 total investment (apart from housing) accounted for 11.3 percent of gross national product; in 1970 it had been 10.5 percent, 9.6 percent in 1960, 9.5 percent in 1950. For some reason, old levels of investment did not create the same productivity growth as before, but in that case more investment might not be the answer. Neither was more generous tax treatment clearly the key to greater investment. A survey of business reaction to the investment tax credit showed that "while business welcomes the tax reduction" firms "buy little or no additional equipment as a consequence of the tax credit."[22] Yet the basic argument for business tax cuts seems to have been widely accepted.[23]

Whatever its economic merits, the administration's original "Accelerated Cost Recovery System" (ACRS) was fervently supported by business interests and traditional Republicans. The new Conable-Hance package reduced the estimated tax cut by $15 billion over three years (and more later).[24] This angered Ways and Means Republicans who didn't much like not having been consulted about it either.[25] While they grumbled, the administration faced two threats that could provoke a defection.

The first difficulty involved the administration's economic projections. Senator Domenici had numbers from his staff and enough contacts with other sources to believe that the deficit picture was far worse than OMB had revealed. Because he was losing sleep over the prospects, the Senate Budget chairman finally told Chief of Staff Baker that he might have to lead a revolt against the tax bill. Baker, Darman, Stockman, all tried to get Domenici to back off. "I couldn't convince him," one senior aide recalls. "None of us could." They assured him they would seek more cuts, including those in defense, later in the year if necessary. Finally, "he went up to the residence with the president and practically got down on his knees to say he couldn't vote for the tax bill, and the president said, 'Pete, trust me, it will work.' And against all the advice of his staff,


of Bell, he voted for it." Domenici would huff and puff but simply could not defy his president. One of his aides reported in late 1982 that the New Mexico senator was still tortured about the decision; it would "haunt him for the next ten years."[26]

The administration itself was divided over its projections. Regan, Baker, Darman, Stockman, and mainstream Republican economists all subordinated worries about long-term deficits to a concern with winning now as much as possible of the good things in the president's agenda. "As a group," Murray Weidenbaum would tell the president two months later, "your advisers decided that the midyear review should not be changed. It would have confused the tax picture."[27]

A second and more powerful challenge to the revised tax package emerged from the business establishment. Most of Washington's top business lobbyists met regularly in a breakfast group at the Carlton Hotel. At White House urging this informal gathering had expanded into a more formal Budget Control Working Group that lobbied Capitol Hill for President Reagan's package. They "were not enamored of 10-10-10…. But [they] wanted the Accelerated Depreciation" and weren't sure that the tax cut would create horrible deficit problems. According to a group leader: "We did have some economists who said it would work, that the boost in the economy would be so great that we'd get it back in three years." One faction in particular, led by Chamber of Commerce President Richard Lesher and its chief economist Richard Rahn, included some fervent supply-siders. Groups like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) were more skeptical, but all had rallied to the president's side with uncharacteristic fervor. They were thrilled to be rid of Carter, wanted help from the new administration on environmental and other regulatory issues, trusted Reagan's old-hand advisers, and so had subordinated doubts about the tax cut.

On Thursday, June 4, at a routine morning meeting at the White House, the business community suddenly learned the administration couldn't confirm the business part of the package. Richard Rahn of the Chamber (whose black eyepatch and boots made him a fitting symbol of that group's individualism) erupted, declaring the new plan "a breach of faith." News of the business reaction spread quickly. Rahn and his colleagues were shocked by this new twist, but White House advisers with liaisons to business were equally stunned by Rahn's response. And "for some reason … they in the White House thought we would bolt."

Who could be sure? Looking back, it seems unlikely, but White House strategists were working on such a longshot game that even a lessening of enthusiasm might be dangerous. It was not as if they had enough boll weevils to give a cushion. Charles Stenholm estimated only fifteen to twenty members of the conservative Democratic Forum were with the


president on taxes.[28] If business really wanted its own cuts, maybe some more traditional House Republicans would ally with Rostenkowski to help business, thereby torpedoing the individual reductions, which, after all, is what they wanted to do anyway. Another source reports:

The next morning all of us, about fifteen, met with Regan, Baker, and Ture. Regan said, "I hear you're unhappy; we want to do something about it." He looked at Rahn and said, "Let's not just complain." I asked Regan, are your feet in concrete on this? Regan said yes. I told him, "All I have to say is, the Roundtable [chief executives of the nation's largest corporations] meets Monday, and they've never really liked 10-10-10. The two guys who sold them were Wriston and Shultz, who are out of the country right now." Silence. Baker said, "Can this be fixed?" I said, "Three days ago it might have been fixed. Now you're set in concrete."

This participant reports that at the June 5 meeting someone suggested "that they just restore the last part but move it out past the third year of the budget horizon." In other words, they would postpone but not eliminate the deficit effects, moving them far enough into the future for the boll weevils not to have to look at them. There are conflicting reports about who came up with the idea and when, but it held the most promise of solving the political problem of holding both business and the boll weevils.

Secretary of the Treasury Regan was no fan of most of the excised provisions, but Baker was pressuring him to solve the political problem any way he could. The secretary then thought the most important part of his own job was to serve the president, which meant above all maintaining a coalition to support the individual tax reduction.[29] Over the weekend, the Treasury redrafted Conable-Hance along the lines suggested by the business representatives. The revised package, actually introduced in the House on Tuesday, June 9, produced the same revenue loss for the budget period, FY82–84, as had the June 4 plan. But for FY81–86 it cost $163 billion, $ 10 billion less than the February plan but $40 billion more than on June 4.[30] If business was bluffing, the bluff had worked.

The administration now had 5-10-10 on the individual side, a delayed version of the original business plan, and many provisions designed to win marginal, particularly Republican, votes.

The Democrats Respond

The Democrats' strategy had been, in essence, to beat the individual rate cuts by using special provisions to win marginal votes. Now the Republicans had matched those bids. Tip O'Neill mused that "when they had


the pure Kemp-Roth and the 10-5-3 we had them licked and they knew we had them licked. But where we made our mistake was … in allowing them to get the information of what was in our bill … the sweeteners…. They took the goodies that were under our table."[31]

The bidding for marginal votes could only continue; any bid, however obnoxious in itself, would seem the lesser evil compared to losing on the individual rate cut. Of the proposals circulating in Ways and Means Ken Holland (D-S.C.) remarked, "It used to be that these kinds of things were only being advocated by rednecks and Republicans."[32] Anticipating the dynamic that would follow, the New Republic commented that "liberal citizens can only hope that the Democrats will come to terms before Reagan threatens to compromise further."[33]

The bidding war that followed should not, however, obscure the real disagreement on policy. In mid-June, Ways and Means Democrats endorsed a 5 percent rate cut on October 1, 1981, and 10 percent on July 1, 1982, substantially tilted toward middle- and lower-incomes. In order to argue that their bill would be as generous as Reagan's, if the deficit allowed—a pretty good reading of opinion polls—Ways and Means designed "a gimmicky trigger that we knew could never be pulled," allowing a third-year, 10 percent cut if the economy did some miraculous things.

On the business side, Sam Gibbons, chairman of the task force responsible for drafting a Democratic plan, set the size of the Republican package as a rough standard. There seems to have been little controversy over that decision. The question was how to match the Republican offer. In mid-June Ways and Means Democrats pulled a whopper out of their hat; they endorsed "expensing," the provision under which a corporation could write off all the cost of an investment in the first year.

Although it essentially eliminated taxation on investment, expensing would not subsidize anything in particular—unlike the administration plan, which was estimated to cost $1.07 for every $1.00 of new investment. Economists, who dislike government trying to influence market actions, had to prefer expensing to the messy details of Reagan's Accelerated Cost Recovery System and to the investment tax credit. Former Senate Finance Chairman Russell Long commented that business had always wanted expensing; "they only didn't ask for it because they thought they couldn't get it."[34]

In addition to expensing, the Democrats proposed reducing the corporate income tax, with top rates failing from 46 to 34 percent between 1984 and 1987. People with short memories, especially those who seek to judge responsibility for the deficit, should remember not only what Republicans got but also what Democrats were prepared to give.

Expensing was a bold stroke, attractive to businessmen and economists, a real reform that would simplify the tax code (eventually) yet,


supposedly, cost less than the GOP plan.[35] Naturally the Democrats could not keep it all this simple; they added an investment tax credit for the smokestack industries (cars, steel—think of Chrysler) in trouble, particular beneficiaries of the GOP plan. The tax credits could be received as refunds even if these ailing companies had no profits to be taxed. "You guys have come a long way toward being Republicans on taxes," W. Henson Moore (R-La.) commented, "but this goes too … far."[36] In the end Republicans matched the bid by allowing unprofitable companies to sell unused tax credits to companies that could use them, a variant that in a rather twisted way preserved a market role in this process—without reducing the government's loss and while strengthening the already strong. Sales of tax credits became a prime target for repeal in the 1982 tax act.

The Democrats' bold maneuver might have worked if politics was only about competing for support on the basis of the best offer. But that is the politics of amateurs, people in the game for only one round. To the professionals, long-term alliances are more important than short-term offers. The professional's question—here we include not only party politicians but also partisan policy experts and leaders of interest groups—is not, Whose proposal sounds better? but Who are my friends? Business lobbyists ignored the attractive Democratic proposal, rationalizing their disinterest with doubts the Democrats would actually follow through.[37] A business lobbyist explains, "We didn't take expensing because it was just not invented here, that's all." Another says, "It was very late in the game, and in politics you don't change sides so easily." A Ways and Means source summarized what happened: "They were just on the president's side. We're big kids, we talked to these guys, and the message was coming from the CEOs. I don't care what we did, they were going to back Ronald Reagan." The fact that the Democrats' plan was slightly less generous surely did not help, but it would have required a much more generous plan to get business to defect from a Republican president. Sentiment as well as hard-sell motivates the managers of corporate capitalism.

Senate Finance Moves

As Ways and Means Democrats worked on their package, public conflict shifted to the Senate, where Chairman Dole was working to report his bill before the July 4th recess. Dole wanted to keep the pressure on Ways and Means. He circumvented the constitutional requirement that revenue measures originate in the House by attaching the bill to a House-passed increase in the debt ceiling. His real difficulty was how to accommodate the intense pressure within his committee for "goodies" while keeping the deficit down.


In a markup that began June 18 and ended June 25, Finance adopted 5-10-10, the rerevised ACRS, and a raftload of additional provisions, ranging from a tax credit for oil royalty owners to one for rehabilitating old buildings included in the Conable-Hance package.

Finance then added, among other things, a reduction in the windfall (oil) profits tax and deductions to help truckers cover the costs of deregulation. The biggest addition was something called the All-Savers plan, under which savers could deduct from their income the first $1,000 of interest ($2,000 for couples) on special one-year CDs, paying 70 percent of the current T-bill rate.

As originally proposed by the savings and loan industry, the point of All-Savers was to generate deposits for thrift institutions, which had severe problems because inflation had made many of their old mortgages money-losers. The thrifts claimed that the tax break would encourage savings. Because that was such a good idea, senators extended it to banks and credit unions. Most observers assumed that All-Savers would just cause a shift of money from one kind of account to another. CEA member William Niskanen called it "one of the worst ideas I've seen in public life for a long time. I see no reason why it would increase savings."[38] Dole called it an "all-subsidy" plan.[39] Treasury and tax committee specialists were horrified, but pressure from senators, particularly Democrats, was too great to resist.[40]

To compensate for some of these valuables, Dole included a few reforms. One would eliminate the "commodity tax straddle." When Finance approved its package, 19 to 1, on June 25, it seemed that Dole had fought off enough other tax breaks to have worked a miracle.[41] He had hit the FY84 revenue-loss target of $150 billion almost exactly but included enough attractive items to get a nearly unanimous vote from his committee.

Only by the standards of the Senate was Dole's a victory for fiscal responsibility. He met the original target by first adopting the administration's compromise to 5-10-10 and then postponing the third-year business tax cuts beyond the budget horizon. Finance had not exactly reduced costs. On one major issue, the indexing of tax rates, Dole had arranged to increase the tax cut substantially, but Stockman didn't know that.

Indexing means raising the brackets each year by the amount of inflation, thereby not pushing people into a higher bracket by a wage increase that gives them no increase in real income. Like repairing the marriage penalty and reducing the estate tax, indexing was Reagan administration policy but not part of the first tax bill package.

Along with Finance member Bill Armstrong (R-Colo.), Dole had sponsored indexing proposals in 1979 and 1980.[42] Because of inflation, Dole


said, some families' taxes were "nearly 50 percent higher than in 1965." Indexing, he said, "is more honest"; raising taxes was a decision "Congress should take responsibility for, rather than ceding that duty to the Consumer Price Index."[43]

Although the administration supported indexing in principle, Regan, Baker, Stockman, and even the president insisted that indexing not be added to the bill. In reply, "Dole assured us in plain English," a member of the Legislative Strategy Group recalls, "that indexing would not be in the package at the time it was considered in Senate Finance." Whatever he said to the administration, Dole had his staff working on ways, to add indexing from the time the Reagan package was added in February. About a week earlier they had adopted a neat tactic: indexing, beginning in 1985, would be reported as a separate, committee-supported amendment. The date and separate reporting meant indexing would not count in the FY82–84 tax cut totals. The amendment (sponsored by Armstrong) was reported by a vote of 9 to 5. "There were a lot of absentees," one aide reports, "out of deference to the chairman."

By Stockman's account, the administration still thought Dole was on their side.[44] Perhaps that is why, when Dole and Armstrong spoke for the amendment on the Senate floor on July 1, he and Senator Long had the following exchange:

Mr. Dole: The Senator from Kansas would like to speak in favor of the amendment prior to the vote.

Mr. Long: If the Senator wants to speak, go right on ahead.

Mr. Dole: If there are other speakers, I would sort of like to blend in with the group.[45]

Understandably! According to estimates when the tax bill was passed, in FY86 indexing accounted for as much extra revenue loss as all other additions to the original package combined.[46] The reasons for indexing were compelling, nonetheless, for an establishment politician like Dole, who worried about the perceived legitimacy of the tax code.

With only one Democrat, Bill Bradley, voting against Dole's plan in the committee, the game was essentially over in the Senate. The only question was how many riders would get on the tax-cut train. In late June, Russell Long had told the president, "You have the votes in the Senate to pass your tax bill," and the former Finance chairman was not one to misjudge such matters. Yet Long urged that the third year be subject to a trigger in the event of high deficits. Reagan refused. "Government," he replied, "spends all the taxes it gets. If we reduce taxes, we'll reduce spending."[47] This restatement of his children's allowance theory was the essence of Reaganomics. There would be no further compromise.[48]


Ways and Means Democrats were uniting behind a package that would have provided 80 percent of individual cuts to persons earning less than $50,000, compared to 65 percent in the Senate Finance bill.[49] They would change depreciation to better fit their remaining principles. Ironically, the very fact that the Democrats had lost twice in a row encouraged unity. How many times could the boll weevils reject their party on crucial votes and still be able to live with their colleagues? A number of boll weevils wanted to make amends to the House leadership; they had done enough for Reagan. Charles Wilson, a defector on reconciliation, was working with the leadership to hold his Texas colleagues. When Congress returned from its July 4 recess, most estimates held that the Democrats might well win in the House.

The Bidding War

Which side are you on? Most members knew, but some were on the fence. Neither side could abide the prospect of losing, so they began an all-out bidding war for the swing votes. That war provided the year's most lurid political dramas, which almost obscured the battle's serious policy stakes.

Senate Republicans had saved money by attacking tax straddles. On July 10, House Democrats, on the instigation of Marty Russo (D-Ill.), reduced the savings from $1.3 billion to $900 million by allowing commodity traders to continue using tax straddles. This proposal was drafted by Joint Tax Committee staff after meeting with Russo, the chairman of the Chicago Board of Trade, and the special counsel to the Board of Governors of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Nothing could look more like "special-interest" politics. Each organization had given hefty campaign contributions to Russo and Rostenkowski. On July 14 President Reagan, in a speech in Chicago, proclaimed that the Democrats "have gone out of their way to offer 2,500 commodity speculators a tax break of over $400 million."[50] Before the fight was over the president would abandon such rhetoric and raise Russo's bid.[51] The real high-stakes auction, however, involved oil.

What could be more old style politics than oil? Long before OPEC, long before energy shortages and worries about the national security implications of war in the Persian Gulf, oil was at the center of politics. For years a precondition of appointment to Ways and Means was supporting a tax break for oil—the depletion allowance. Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana oil money—originally Democratic for reasons of either state politics or opposition to giant eastern oil companies (whose pipelines and market power continually threatened smaller but still rich operators)—became a major financial prop of the Democratic party.


As the Democratic party became more liberal, its conservative southern wing became less influential. The "small" operators of Texas and its neighbors came to realize that they were rich men, sharing some interest in national politics with the "Seven Sisters" of the international oil business. On the whole, Democratic biases, favoring price controls and other measures to ease customers' pain from the dramatic oil price run-ups during the 1970s, did not sit well with oil men. Republican biases toward letting the market decide were much more congenial to people who, for the moment, supplied a commodity for which there was great demand. Democrats had lost their grip on the oil money; it was missed.

The oil industry was not merely of interest to a few fat cats. Many thousands of people received royalties from oil wells; hundreds of thousands more depended on the health of the industry. In Oklahoma there are oil wells on the grounds of the State Capitol; in Baton Rouge, capital of Louisiana, the giant Exxon refinery is a symbol of petroleum's importance. Oil is important in its region in the same way the auto industry is in Michigan or the federal government is in Washington and its suburbs. James Jones said that as many as twenty votes on thetax bill would depend on the treatment of oil. Secure in upstate New York, Barber Conable could call Kent Hance a "knee-jerk oil man";[52] Hance had little choice in the matter if he was to serve his district.

Oil politics focused on redistributive issues: who would pay and receive more or less depending on governmental policy. When OPEC drove up prices during the Carter administration, the oil states raked in money from the rest of the country. In order to assure supply, Jimmy Carter worked for a phased decontrol of prices (which oil interests liked); to prevent further regional redistribution, however, he fought for the windfall profits tax. In this battle over energy policy, the oil-producing states had ideological allies in the Republican party; but it was essentially a regional battle of oil interests against everybody else's, and oil was outnumbered. In 1981 fortunes dramatically reversed. Instead of a losing protagonist in a policy battle, oil representatives found themselves—because of their ideology and the balance of power within the House—a crucial swing group, courted by both sides.

Democrats appointed Richard Gephardt—both budget and tax reformer, and deal maker from Missouri—as their negotiator with the oil Democrats. Senate Finance's proposal to increase the tax credit against the windfall-profits tax from $1,000 to $2,500 for royalty owners (generally, landowners who have sold rights to drill on their property) would be justified as an aid to the "little guy," the farmer who just happens to have an oil well on the back forty. The Ways and Means Democrats were looking for something more.

They came up with a plan for a tax credit of $4,300 for royalty owners,


that is, a windfall-tax exemption rising to three and a half barrels a day by 1986. This latter provision could be worth far more than the credit. With other exemptions for newly discovered oil, their bid was estimated to cost $7.1 billion through 1986.[53]

Over in the Senate, during debate on the Finance Committee bill, Lloyd Bentsen proposed to more than double the House offer. Although Dole got Bentsen's amendment tabled, 61 to 38, the Finance chairman concluded that some compromise was necessary. He therefore proposed a further reduction, beyond the Ways and Means plan, in the windfall profits tax on "new" oil. Administration lobbyists were unhappy with the cost of this proposal (raising the ante to $11 billion) but could not say much because Reagan was known not to like the windfall profits tax.[54] Northern Democrats, however, now began a filibuster—enough was enough. Dole found that he did not have the votes for cloture to limit debate, a development that may not have disappointed him very much; so on July 22 he dropped his amendment. As of that day, therefore, the Ways and Means bill was superior to either the Senate's or Hance-Conable as an oil subsidy. Charles Wilson was confident about the final outcome: "I will state categorically that we have the Republicans beat on this bill."[55]

Christmas in July

That would not do. On July 23, the Post reported, "The Reagan administration, preparing for a confrontation in the House … abandoned all pretense of seeking a 'clean' tax bill and substantially altered its tax package to include special interest amendments for the oil industry, savings and loan firms and a collection of other groups."[56] Stockman provides a vivid explanation of what had happened: "Everyone was accusing everyone else of greed, and cynically auctioning off the tax code. … At a White House strategy meeting, Minority Whip Trent Lott summed up the mood: 'Everybody else is getting theirs, it's time we got ours.'"[57] Republican House leaders, over the resistance of Stockman and, more important, Treasury Secretary Don Regan and Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy John "Buck" Chapoton, won a series of concessions. Opposition to All-Savers was abandoned, and the commodity tax break, which Reagan had blasted on July 14, became part of the package on July 23. Regan explained that these revenue reducing "giveaways" were necessary for the "greater good" of passing the administration tax bill.[58] Among other provisions added were a reduced holding period for, capital gains from one year to six months, the generous Democratic treatment of estate taxes, and indexing.

In a separate meeting with the boll weevils, the administration upped


the ante on oil, adopting not only Dole's proposed Senate treatment of new oil, but a series of other adjustments that raised the revenue loss to an estimated $13 to $16 billion. The White House had doubled the Democrats' bid.[59]

The oil provisions were the most publicized aspects of the tax battle, but there were many, many more. The Senate adopted 80 of 118 proposed amendments to the Finance Committee bill, creating a beautiful Christmas tree. These ranged from lowering the minimum corporation tax rate to a one-time $1,500 credit for adoption of certain disadvantaged children to a $10 credit for each pecan tree planted in South Alabama to replace each one blown down by Hurricane Frederick in 1979.[60] In short, the Senate adopted many amendments serving many ends.

The administration's July 23 agreements, about which Conable now had more of a say (some wags suggested calling it "Hance-Conable 2"), included special provisions ranging from sops for gypsy moths (tax credits for rehabilitating old buildings and for woodburning stoves) to a credit for investing in television shows, which Dole dubbed the "Gong Show amendment." By this time all parties to the great tax debate were embarrassed. "It's awfully easy to focus on the add-ons," declared Conable defensively. "If I were writing the bill, I would write it differently. Everybody would write it differently."[61] Liberals in the House finally began crafting an alternative. "It would probably be cheaper," David Obey suggested, "if we gave everybody in the country three wishes."[62] "It's terrible that we should be involved in a bidding war," Rostenkowski admitted. "But it all depends on whether you want to lose courageously or to win. I like to win."[63]

Stockman and Darman were beginning to wonder. As the budget director watched Ways and Means Republicans extract concessions from the Treasury on July 23, he passed a note to his colleague. "'I hope they're enjoying this,' it said. 'They've just put themselves out of business for the rest of the decade.'"[64]

The oil deal distressed Stockman further. He and Darman had assumed all along that they would have to compromise with Rosty: "[We] expected to have to give in on some spending, but it wouldn't matter because we wouldn't get all the tax cut." Instead the tax package kept getting bigger.

On the afternoon of July 23, the two most independent-minded members of the administration considered heresy: "Maybe," Darman suggested, "we should take a dive on this." If only they managed not to cut a few extra deals—they could see that more deals were needed—the tax cuts might not pass. "But in the end," Stockman reports, "we chickened out." Always the tactician and institutionalist, Darman told himself he was preserving the president's ability to govern. Stockman, more the


moralist, recalls that "calculated sabotage of the President's most cherished initiative was beyond the pale."[65] At least for awhile.

With all the ornaments attached, however, the biggest bucks were in the most defensible addition: indexing. Its cost was estimated, by Joint Tax Committee staff, at $12.6 billion in FY85, and $37.4 billion in FY86. When the administration added indexing to its House bill, the proposal was now in the Republican packages on each side. The editors of the Washington Post objected:

Congress has shown itself fully capable over the last decades of legislating tax cuts sufficient to offset "bracket creep." … Legislating a massive three-year tax cut in an economy as uncertain as the present one is folly enough. Sharply limiting the freedom of future Congresses to deal with whatever failures of current unforeseen shifts may emerge is mid-summer madness.[66]

A realist had to assume that fiscal policy would work better if choices were phrased as how much to cut taxes rather than how much to raise them. Democracies, in this view, need institutions that can help representatives do the unpopular and the necessary—in this case, match taxes and revenues. President Reagan, of course, would say the issue is too much spending, not too little collecting.

Whether sound or not, the argument against indexing based on grounds of fiscal flexibility is hard to sell. If the reader disbelieves us, try arguing that tax increases should be surreptitious, done in the dark of night, which is how bracket creep takes place. Indexing had already passed the Senate on July 16, 57 to 40 (Republicans, 43 to 8; Democrats, 14 to 32).

In the House, by July 17, Willis Gradison (R-Ohio) had 223 cosponsors on a separate indexing bill. Rostenkowski acknowledged that Gradison's bill would sweep through the House if a vote were taken but vowed to keep it off the House floor. Thus, Treasury Secretary Regan was under intense pressure when he capitulated on July 23.[67]

"It's like the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union," said Representative William Brodhead (D-Mich.). "For every move, there's a countermove; for every weapon, a counterweapon."[68] There was one big difference: in the tax battle all the weapons were used.

The parties organized home district lobbying of possible swing votes. Democrats set up a "boiler room" in the Capitol with telephone banks for calls to newspaper editors in key districts. Party Chairman Charles Manatt asked contributors to contact wavering legislators. Democrats also tried to pressure the gypsy moths, particularly through labor unions, since many of the more liberal Republicans represented districts with strong union organizations.[69] The gypsy moths were uncomfortable at


being placed under such continuous pressure by the administration's unwillingness to compromise. "They don't have to put us to the wall every week," declared Carl Pursell (R-Mich.).[70] But it was hard to see how union pressure could be any stronger on taxes than on reconciliation. Ed Madigan (R-Ill.) concluded, therefore, that the "tax vote should not be too tough for them, but," he added presciently, "if Stockman tries for another $20 billion in cuts next year, it will be very hard."[71]

Republicans had bigger guns. As on reconciliation, they were helped by the fact that they controlled the Senate and the presidency. They had the money ($500,000) for a series of radio ads in swing districts. Most of all they had the president. He used the soft sell, inviting fourteen waverers to a barbecue at Camp David on Sunday, July 26. The waverers generally reported no change of mind; Charles Bennett declared that he felt that any tax cut was a bad idea and had told Reagan so three times. In the end, a sense of being personally courted could not have hurt as eleven of them did back the president. With some members Reagan made specific deals. Then on Monday, July 27, he went on television to sell his program.

Mobilizing the Public

Reagan's audience that night was basically favorably inclined toward him but not convinced about his policies. His Job approval rating, which was 68 to 21 percent favorable in early May after his dramatic recovery from the wounding, dropped to 59 to 28 percent in early June, where it remained through the summer. The most likely cause of this decline was Reagan's social security package, which the Republicans' own polling showed to be very unpopular.[72]

Reagan's approval rating, as Table 4 shows, was based more on attitudes toward his leadership than on his budget policies; the latter were as likely to produce opposition as support.[73]

A Time poll a little later in the month, however, showed 32 percent of the public supporting the three-year tax cut, while 36 percent supported a one-year cut, and 22 percent no cut at all.[74] These figures could give the Democrats some hope.

Yet the public did not share the Democrats' intense opposition to Kemp-Roth. In a July poll only 16 percent expected the big tax cut to increase inflation; far more people expected the cut to help them through increased employment.[75] The public's seeming preference for a smaller tax cut had more to do with preferring moderation on principle than with objecting to the cut itself.

When Reagan gave his speech on July 27, he therefore had a chance to define the issue in his favor. He wanted to use the speech to make


Table 4. Reagan Approval Is Not Based on Policies—But Disapproval Is (in percentages)

Approval (58%)


Deserves credit for trying (general)



Approve economic plan and budget cuts



Leadership qualities; like him



Needed a change of leadership



Reducing government size and waste


Disapproval (28%)


Dislike economic plan and budget cuts



Reducing social security benefits



Helps business and rich people



Has not done anything positive



Outspoken military posture


Source: George A. Gallup, The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1981 (Wilmington, Dela.: Scholarly Resources, 1982), pp. 118–19.

Note: Also asked of those who expressed an opinion on approval or disapproval of the way Reagan was handling his job as president (87 percent of the sample): Why do you feel this way?

the case for both his tax and social security cuts. That coupling might well have been a mistake.

Howard Baker and Robert Michel were so worried by that prospect that they sent Reagan a written request that he confine his speech to taxes. "I think it would be a terrible mistake to drag the Social Security issue into the tax and budget fight," added William Armstrong, one of Reagan's strongest supporters on that issue. Republican pollsters advised that the issue had almost caused Republican Michael Oxley to lose a special election in a very Republican congressional district in Ohio.[76] The president backed down, saying in his speech only that he had been unfairly attacked on the social security issue and that his administration certainly wouldn't take away anyone's benefits—correct, though not for lack of desire.

His speech about taxes was a stunning success—"by common consent of ally and adversary," Laurence Barrett reports, "his best television performance up to that time."[77] Reagan called his plan "the first real tax cut for everyone in almost twenty years." In simple and powerful language he attacked the main Democratic objections (that is, his plan's distribution of benefits and riskiness) and suggested what the real reasons for Democratic objections might be:

The majority leadership claims their [bill] gives a greater break to the worker than ours and it does—that is, if you're only planning to live two


more years. The plain truth is, our choice is not between two plans to reduce taxes, it is between a tax cut or a tax increase. There is built into our present system, including payroll Social Security taxes and the bracket creep I've mentioned, a 22 percent tax increase over the next three years…. If the tax cut goes to you, the American people, in the third year, that money … won't be available for Congress to spend, and that, in my view, is what this whole controversy comes down to. Are you entitled to the fruits of your own labor or does government have some presumptive right to spend and spend and spend?[78]

Reagan asked his audience to phone their congressmen to urge support. The response was overwhelming:

Until the President's Monday night speech on television, House Democrats honestly believed they had a margin of 10 or more votes. But after the speech, Mr. Rostenkowski related … he sat in his office until 11:30 p.m., listening to the phone ringing in response to Mr. Reagan. It was then that Mr. Rostenkowski began to worry. His apprehension deepened Tuesday morning, when most Democrats in the Georgia delegation informed the House leadership that they were going with the President.[79]

What the Speaker called "a telephone blitz like this nation has never seen" set switchboards ablaze on Capitol Hill.[80] Offices were flooded with calls, according to one estimate, favoring Reagan by about six to one. On Gramm-Latta 1, Carroll Hubbard had resisted the blandishments of a state dinner and the president's appeal, but on the tax bill his office received 500 calls, 480 of them siding with the White House. "It is obvious that the president's tax cut has overwhelming support in western Kentucky," said this previously loyal moderate who then voted for Hance-Conable.[81] Beverly Byron had not been convinced by the Camp David barbecue, but 1,000 phone calls won her over to the president's side. Bo Ginn of Georgia received a call from Jimmy Carter urging him to hold fast, but, though Carter was Ginn's 405th caller, he was only the fifth to back the Democrats.[82] Ginn also defected. "The constituents broke our doors down," he explained. "It wasn't very subtle."[83]

Some lobbying was orchestrated by interest groups. The Chamber of Commerce, for instance, organized a telegram blitz of forty-three Democrats whom the White House suggested might be winnable, and twenty-nine of them did defect. Most congressmen, however, concluded that many of their calls were from "real people."[84]

The lobbying after the speech was intense. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.) reported calls from the secretaries of Agriculture, Energy, and the Treasury, and two from the president. Bob Traxler (D-Mich.) reported that at 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday he was called by the president and turned him down. He was called again at 1:30 p.m. by a White House aide. Beginning


twenty minutes later, he received calls from top executives of General Motors and Dow Chemical, a Ford vice president, and then a Chrysler lobbyist. Traxler continued to resist, but Glickman, loyal to his party on spending votes, gave in. So did Dan McCurdy of Oklahoma, who explained that after Reagan called him on July 28 (McCurdy also had been at the barbecue), he finally decided to support the president for the sake of "accessibility. You like to know you have access and I feel I have it more so now. The president said he would remember…. I have three military bases in my district. I just want to know that if we come to a crunch over that, they're going to remember me."[85]

Other Democrats received more tangible considerations. Reagan gave Glenn English a handwritten note promising to veto "with pleasure" any windfall tax on natural gas. That was no concession for Reagan who already opposed such taxes. The note, however, did enable English to look especially good in his district; it sealed his vote. Some members took kind words as promises; Mario Biaggi of New York announced that Reagan had promised to back legislation to reverse the Gramm-Latta 2 repeal of the social security minimum benefit. That was a big change, if true, as the minimum benefits issue was simultaneously part of the controversy over the conference on Gramm-Latta 2.[86] In every way available to a president, Ronald Reagan sought votes for his tax plan, the centerpiece of his program to change the course of American government.

We cannot judge whether members were convinced by the indicators of Reagan's popularity or found it instead a convenient excuse for a vote shaped by other considerations. Georgia Representative Bo Ginn, for example, explained his vote by constituency pressure; yet both Stockman and one key Democratic strategist had a different explanation: peanuts. As Stockman explains, "The Georgia delegation notified Ken Duberstein [the administration's House lobbyist] it was 'for rent.' … I gagged at the prospect. They wanted us to stop our attempts to abolish the peanut subsidy program." Peanuts symbolized, for Stockman, the "corruption of state power." It was "a government-subsidized producer's cartel."[87] Still he agreed; the prize was too big. As his Democratic rival put it, "We had votes we could muscle; they had some; but when you lose eight at once…." Most likely it was peanuts and popularity. One member of the Georgia delegation told us he gave a series of speeches against the tax cut in his district, but people wouldn't hear it.

Emphasizing the attack on programs, on the federal government's social mission, inherent in the tax plan, Democratic leaders pleaded for support. "Let us cut spending, yes. Let us cut taxes, yes," Jim Wright proclaimed, "but let us leave the round table intact at Camelot. Let's not burn it for firewood to warm the wealthy."[88] Reminiscent of the New Deal language of class differences ("malefactors of great wealth"),


Speaker O'Neill declared that passage of Hance-Conable would, when added to the Prince Charles wedding in London that day, make it "a big day for the aristocracies of the world."[89] Republican leader Robert Michel defined the stakes a little differently, tellingthe House, "Let us face it, the Speaker wants to hold onto as much federal revenue as he can."[90] The Speaker lost, 238 to 195. Forty-eight Democrats voted for Hance-Conable; one Republican opposed it. That same day, after approving eighty amendments in twelve days of debate, the Senate passed the Finance Committee's bill, 89 to 11.


What were the political lessons of the tax battle?[91] Ultimately Reagan won all but two of those who had voted with him on the reconciliation rule. His lobbying and the public outcry picked up a few moderates, like Glickman and Biaggi. He showed that a president can successfully appeal to the people or to some of them. The tax cut was popular when it passed; in mid-August a Gallup sample approved it by a two to one margin.[92] Reagan was helped, in a way, by the Democrats, who created a package they had trouble defending because they did not much believe in it. "All the Democrats achieved by compromising was to undercut their own arguments against our position," commented a Reagan adviser.[93] But the president also sold the package by continually down-playing its radicalness.

It was hardly a tax cut at all, he argued, much as the spending cuts had not really been spending cuts. There seemed, to be sure, some truth in these arguments. The Kemp-Roth tax cuts would serve in some sense to offset previously established tax increases from social security and bracket creep. Yet while Reagan invoked brilliantly the residual American suspicion of "the guvmint"—always speaking of government as if it were some strange creature with a mind of its own, separate from the people who voted, lobbied, demanded and complained, paid taxes, pocketed the benefits, and staffed the bureaucracy—he did not make his case against the welfare state on its merits. He had some desire to try, as with social security, but was talked out of the attempt.

In short, Reagan's great victories were not truly revolutionary. He did not change the minds of the American people. But he did rouse existing beliefs to a point where many people petitioned their senators and representatives. Reagan used all the powers at his command to obtain, in only seven months, a major redirection of the priorities of the American government. Yet he had not won the public over to "Reaganism."

Congress passed the conference report on the tax bill on August 4. Conferees compromised on various benefits attached to the package


during the bidding war. Some miscellaneous special-interest provisions—pecan trees, "the gong show amendment," the freeze of the oil depletion allowance, tax credit for wood-burning stoves—were removed. The mild cleanup of the tax bill was just as traditional as the previous Christmas-treeing of the package.

The bidding war was the most dramatic aspect of the 1981 tax battle. Yet the fact that Reagan won all but three of the votes on taxes that he had won through reconciliation should remind us that the basis of his victory was a coalition created by the 1980 election: Republicans held together by party unity and a minority of conservative Democrats from conservative districts. There was uncertainty, so members of Congress exploited the situation to demand benefits for their districts. Yet the auction proved not that the president had to dominate Congress but that even he had to lobby it. As surely as he raised a political windstorm, just as surely he knew there were limits to how hard he could push. When Charles Wilson was committed to his party on the tax bill, the president ceased his personal lobbying.[94] When Claudine Schneider opposed him on the final Gramm-Latta 2 vote, he called her the next day to pledge his support against unhappy Republicans in her district.[95]

Stockman drew another conclusion; Greider quotes him:

"I now understand," he said, "that you probably can't put together a majority coalition unless you are willing to deal with those marginal interests that will give you the votes needed to win. That's where it is fought—on the margins—and unless you deal with those marginal votes, you can't win"[96]

He added something that meant more then he perhaps realized: "Power," said the disappointed budget director, "is contingent."[97] The oil auction was a wonderful example. Oil interests, relatively weak in the late 1970s, took full advantage of the new contingencies. If power is contingent, however, so is weakness. The oil interests exploited the bidding war, but that was possible only because the bidders chose to play. The game could change very quickly and with it the seeming distribution of power.

Some legislators exploited the need for their votes in late July for personal ends. But to party leaders, and (we hope by now) to our readers, the "situation" meant more than the tax battle of July. That battle was set in a larger context—economic crisis, Democratic party disarray, elite confusion, a dramatic election, Republicans enjoying the prospect of governing, a new president at the height of his power. Those were the circumstances Reagan used, not only for short-term ends but also to shape the long-term results.

The attention paid to the special-interest battle also should not be


allowed to obscure the fact that if that battle had not occurred and the president had won his original cleaner bill, deficits would still have been huge.[98]

The fiscal crisis that followed had far more to do with the original plan than with the add-ons. Estimates at the time projected that big differences would not show up for five years (in FY86, $46 billion). There was plenty of time to fix up those differences, if they were significant. The original $221.7 billion revenue loss for FY86 was far more intractable.

From the beginning of the battle, both sides knew that the real stake was constraining government in the future. The Speaker and his allies fought to prevent constraints; they did not believe in the supply-side boom. The president believed in both the boom and in spending cuts. Taxes were the worst part of government, so cutting taxes would cut government, reversing what Reagan believed to be the pernicious momentum of the federal machine. The tax and authorization changes were now part of the law. Attempts to change these would have to overcome not the president's popularity but his veto. He held the key to later action. In that sense, he had set the agenda for coming years.

But the agenda would depend as much on the economy as on Reagan's victories. The crucial consideration was raised by veteran Pennsylvania Republican Representative Joe McDade shortly after he voted for the Hance-Conable bill: "Pray God it works. If this economic plan doesn't jell, where are we going to get the money for anything?"[99]


Return of the Deficit

Can anyone here say that if we can't do it, someone down the road can do it? And if no one does it, what happens to the country? All of us here know the economy would face an eventual collapse. I know it's a hell of a challenge, but ask yourselves: If not us, who? If not now, when?

The speaker was Ronald Reagan; the audience was his cabinet,the time, September 1981, his subject, reducing budget deficits.[1] As soon as the reconciliation and tax-cut battles ended, the deficit panic began again—indeed, even before Reagan signed those two bills on August 13 and left on a California vacation. The alarm was sounded by David Stockman, privately to the president on August 3 during a lunch meeting of the administration's top economic policy makers, not so privately in a series of leaks to the media. Some critics have argued that Stockman's fear that the deficits would spook the markets was self-fulfilling. But the "markets," with their own supply of gloomy gurus, did not need Stockman to spook them.

The Markets Say No

When the tax cut passed, the coming deep recession was not obvious, though the economy had begun to slow and private economists were nowhere near as optimistic as the administration.[2] The recession was coming in large part because the Federal Reserve had finally taken a choke hold on the economy. An upward blip in the money supply in April supposedly spooked the markets, so the Fed decided to make sure it did not happen again. In early May the central bank raised the discount rate one point to 14 percent with a four point penalty for frequent, large borrowers, allowed the federal funds rate to rise above 20 percent, and began an unprecedented monetary squeeze. M1-B shrank in May and June, not regaining its April level until November.[3] It took a while for what the Fed was doing to be noticed or believed. By the end of June, however, Jerry Jordan of the CEA, commented that the Board was being very strict; Edward Yardeni of E. F. Hutton said that the Fed might


push the economy over a cliff; Lacy Hunt of Fidelity Bank predicted that unemployment would rise above 8 percent.[4]

Inflation was still slowing, but so far that seemed mainly a result of good luck on commodity prices. Governors of the Federal Reserve Board were worried that inflation might accelerate again, and so were bondholders. "I assume markets are so skeptical now," Mellon Bank's Norman Robertson suggested, "that no amount of talk will change people's anticipations. The markets will have to see actual results."[5] By mid-July CEA member William Niskanen was declaring that "I think we should acknowledge that we are puzzled…. People don't change their expectations of long-term inflation very fast."[6] Trying to soothe European worries about American interest rates, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan was explaining that "you cannot get inflation under control without having high interest rates…. It's a result of supply and demand for money."[7] Interest rates were not coming down, and the arguments they would were daily growing less credible.

Federal Reserve officials expected interest rates to ease "only if we get real softness in the economy." They believed as well that inflation could be controlled only if the economy were weak enough to hold down wages in basic industries like steel, trucking, and automobiles.[8] In July, although money supply growth was running below target and the economy was at a virtual standstill, the Fed lowered the announced targets for 1981. On July 21 members of the House Banking Committee blasted Volcker. Representative Henry Gonzales (D-Tex.) accused the Board of "legalized usury." "Can the country," Norman Shumway (R-Calif.) asked, "stand the cure for this [inflation] problem?" The chairman of the Federal Reserve replied that "turning back the inflationary tide, as we can see, is not a simple, painless process, free from risks and strains of its own. All I would claim is that the risks of not carrying through on the effort to restore price stability would be much greater."[9] The politicians were being judged on many criteria, including employment; Volcker was being judged only on one—inflation.

Instead of a boom, passage of Reagan's economic package preceded the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. From Stockman's Dunkirk memo to Reagan's comments upon the passage of the tax bill, the administration had dreamt that expectations, raised by enacting its program, would cause an investment boom, while tight money would assure price stability. By mid-July that position was becoming very difficult to maintain. Perhaps they hadn't meant that tight. Investors had not been inspired to optimism by the Reagan package, or, if they had, they had not been inspired to pay or charge less for their money. In the June 5 meeting, Reagan's advisers decided not to acknowledge in the midyear review that a rosy scenario was losing credibility. Yet they had to


forecast the deficit for their own use, not just to sell their tax program; by late July only the supply-side coterie at Treasury was willing to defend the old forecast.

Stockman, Weidenbaum, OMB chief economist Larry Kudlow, and monetarist Jerry Jordan of the CEA believed that the unlikely assumptions about money velocity should be corrected. The tax and spending packages also produced larger tax cuts and smaller spending cuts, particularly for FY85 on, than had been planned. The administration's Senate allies were expressing strong doubts about the old forecast. Finally, as one policy maker puts it, "The closer you get to the actual, the more realistic you have to be…. You move the optimism into the out-years." In late July the economic troika put together a new, more realistic forecast. Even assuming 5 percent real growth of GNP from late 1981 on—a very fine economy indeed—the new forecast, as worked up into budget projections by OMB, implied a deficit of $83 billion in FY83, heading over $100 billion in later years.[10]

On August 3, Weidenbaum briefed his colleagues and the president on the new economic forecast; Stockman followed with a long briefing on the budget bad news. "The president," a participant recalled, "looked stunned." Donald Regan, who had accepted the new economic projections, raised some doubts about the deficit numbers but confirmed the main point: the deficit was likely to be worse than previous projections admitted.

No formal decision came out of the meeting, yet there seems to have been a general, undiscussed conclusion that the administration should respond. Reagan commented that the news would make Tip O'Neill look like he had been right all along; when Stockman suggested (rhetorically) that they abandon the target of a balanced budget in FY84, the president responded, "No, we can't give up on the balanced budget. Deficit spending is how we got into this mess." He added that precise balance in FY84 wasn't necessary, but they should come close and show they had made the effort.[11]

What response was possible? Stockman broached the subject of scaling down the defense buildup; Reagan would have none of it. He emphasized that in the campaign he had said national security was more important than the deficit; he believed it, and the people cheered. Stockman brought up the avenue of tax increases; Don Regan, happy to fight the deficit but with spending cuts, opposed the budget director. Stockman discussed "draconian" cuts in social programs; the president suggested savings from "waste" from federal personnel. He said the federal bureaucracy was "layered in fat."

No doubt Reagan believed it. He had said it before, believing 10 percent of the budget could be cut by eliminating waste, and he would


say it again. At the end of 1981 he told Senate Republican leaders as much as $40 billion could be saved from general government overhead.[12] Unfortunately for Stockman and other budgeters, no matter how much waste there may be in the government, people could not agree on what it was. Certainly $40 billion couldn't be taken out of overhead; total payroll for all the civilian agencies wasn't much more than that. Reagan wanted deficit reduction that hurt only "free-loading" bureaucrats, but Stockman had to take checks and benefits away from citizens.

Stockman's difficulty, as he left the inconclusive meeting on August 3, was that, as Newsweek reported, "The easy cuts have all been made." By definition, everything the boll weevils or gypsy moths had forced out of his earlier package was difficult, never mind the cuts that never made it to public view.

Stockman versus Weinberger

But one thing hadn't been tried before—the military. Although the magic asterisk in the Economic Recovery Plan referred to domestic spending savings, Stockman and other presidential advisers had long assumed defense could take a hit if necessary. They had assured Domenici, Bill Green, and other doubters that defense could be cut if the deficit headed out of control. When the Legislative Strategy Group met on August 4, Stockman convinced his colleagues that the administration should launch a "September offensive" to fix the deficit. They agreed that, while the president was in California, a series of meetings would be held to work out a new deficit-reduction package.

Baker and Meese agreed that Stockman should prepare a new package, including defense scale-backs, to present to the president in Los Angeles on August 17 and 18. The Senate was asked to delay action on appropriations until late September so the administration could devise this new package. As Reagan prepared to head west, he held a thank-you ceremony for his tax-cut allies. "The fight to control the Federal budget," Reagan told them, "is just beginning."[13]

Before the long budget battle in Congress, Stockman and his deputy, Bill Schneider, were agreeing with Weinberger and Frank Carlucci on 7 percent real growth for the Department of Defense from FY83 on, after 15 percent in FY82 and 12 percent in FY81. Weinberger treated that as a commitment, and the Pentagon began working out a five-year plan to spend its $1.46 trillion.[14] He was following a logical strategy for an agency in a competitive environment where support could fluctuate quickly: get it while you can, a big commitment, and as much up front as possible. His job was to fight for his department; plenty of other people could worry about the deficit.


Pursuing his responsibility to control spending, the OMB director disagreed with the secretary of Defense. Stockman saw no hope of support for much more in domestic cuts unless the military also chipped in; he believed there were plenty of items that the military desired but, for good budgetary reasons (they didn't work, something else would do the same job, the contractor was having trouble producing), could be dismissed. OMB produced a $130 billion reduction (7 percent) out of Weinberger's $1.46 trillion, five-year plan. Their cuts included the usual suspects in such exercises: aircraft carrier groups, the Bradley armored fighting vehicle, the DIVAD antiaircraft gun.[15] The first two were still on the list during the 1988 campaign for president; DIVAD had been cancelled.

The big showdown was set for August 18 at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Trying to build a sense of public urgency in support of their position, OMB staff did a lot of "public handwringing" over the extent of the deficit.[16] The national media picked up the message that defense must be reconsidered.

While Stockman built pressure on the outside, resistance had developed inside the administration. Prepped by supply-side advisers who were not so worried about the deficit and having a salesman's sensitivity to his client's moods, Donald Regan came to oppose arguments that hinted at any retreat on the tax cut. When Stockman began his case by predicting a $75 billion deficit in FY84, Regan objected that, because the administration's program would not take effect until October 1, projections were premature.

Regan's objection stretched the boundaries of reasonable inference. The economic forecast was quite optimistic; fiscal policy beginning in October would not be much of a change from before October;[17] if expectations were to rescue the economy, they should have already begun to work. However, President Reagan didn't believe in macroeconomics anyway; thus, he did not attend to such details. He always wanted a more optimistic forecast. His secretary of the Treasury's objections would help the president conclude that he did not have to accept prescriptions he preferred to avoid.

The secretary of Defense was even less helpful to Stockman. Objecting even to the form of Stockman's numbers (constant 1984 dollars instead of 1982), Weinberger argued that any reduction in the defense buildup would be dangerous. He stonewalled by refusing to discuss where cuts might be made. Secretary of State Alexander Haig added that to flinch would send the wrong message to the Soviets. Weinberger echoed that argument, which appealed strongly to his chief's sense of what the buildup was all about. Reagan would make the argument himself continually whenever his aides or congressional allies pressed him for defense


scale-backs. Reagan also emphasized that defense had represented a much larger share of the federal budget under President Kennedy, which was true; but, if entitlements had grown, and you could not get rid of them, did that mean defense had to grow to match? Amidst all this resistance, Stockman did have some support from the more legislatively oriented Baker and Meese, who argued that it would be political folly to make new proposals for soaking the needy while sparing the Pentagon. Said one participant, "It can't be done. We'd never win that fight." The president told Weinberger and Stockman to work out a compromise, but that was most unlikely.[18]

On August 26 Reagan's top advisers, led by Meese, met once more to discuss the defense budget. Cap Weinberger again adamantly opposed reductions. Meese asked Weinberger and his deputy, Frank Carlucci, to produce an analysis of defense-budget options. On September 3 they complied, providing charts that showed tanks and airplanes sawed in half and consequences such as deactivation of the division to which Meese's son was assigned. Reagan took the charts for study. He understood the political arguments of his advisers, but he also believed that "if it comes down to balancing the budget or defense, the balanced budget will have to give way."[19]

Having announced they would be remaking the budget, the administration, as in January and February, was continually consulting with its supporters in Congress. A big segment of the latter wouldn't touch further domestic cuts without a defense cut to show fairness and, with defense heading from one-quarter to over one-third of the budget, to give the fiscal program a chance of adding up. Throughout the internal deliberations, interest rates stayed high, stock prices fell, and members of Congress visiting their districts were met not by praise for passing tax cuts but by screams of pain over high interest rates amidst the first signs of recession.

The politicians instinctively and correctly blamed the Federal Reserve's tight money. Back in Kansas, Bob Dole called Paul Volcker and then handed the phone to an agitated constituent so that the Federal Reserve chairman could share the heat. "We can't live with a 20 percent prime," worried Robert Michel, back from his district in Peoria, Illinois. "Something has got to give in the next ninety days." Howard Baker summarized the mood: "I have not witnessed the sort of anger and indignation I'm seeing today in a long time. On the floor, people are talking about credit controls, reorganizing the Federal Reserve, a 'windfall profits' tax on interest income, and wage and price controls. Some of this is coming from Republicans."[20]

Reagan himself joined in bemoaning the Fed as if he wasn't a part of it. At a GOP fundraiser in Santa Barbara, he declared, "The Fed is


independent, and they're hurting us in what we're trying to do as much as they're hurting anyone else."[21] This, however, was Reagan the politician trying to soothe the supply-siders, who saw their doctrine being unfairly discredited, by telling them he was sharing their pain. Reagan the policy maker was a hard-line anti-inflationist, a believer in the monetarist doctrine that inflation should be reined in by a tight hand on the money supply. For most of the spring, the monetarists in the administration, particularly Under Secretary of the Treasury Beryl Sprinkel, had been taking shots at Volcker for being too loose. These critics in the administration, along with extreme nervousness in the bond markets (based on remarkably dubious judgments about monetary policy and thus, apparently, equally wrong fears of coming inflation), had helped push the Fed into its tightening in May. Now the bulk of the administration's economic policy makers—Weidenbaum, Stockman, Jordan, Kudlow, Sprinkel—opposed pressure for looser money. Neither did the establishment press approve the politicians' laments. After all, so the common wisdom went, if the Fed loosened, inflation might accelerate.

Most members of the Reserve Board itself, including the chairman, were so concerned about inflation and worried about establishing their credibility as inflation-fighters that the Board was determined, if it erred at all, to err by being too tight. Furthermore, the logic of expectations said that high long-term interest rates, despite quickly falling inflation, must mean the markets were expecting further inflation. Volcker and his colleagues, in turn, blamed that on the deficit projections. If fiscal policy didn't credibly offer relief for bondholders, the Fed had to work even harder to show its dedication to reducing inflation by crunching the economy. From the beginning of 1981, Volcker had maintained and would continue to insist that future deficits forced him to tighten money immediately. Never again would he allow other people's pain to deflect him from his duty or (recall 1979–1980) lead to the Fed being discredited.

William Greider's history of monetary policy during this period tells this unhappy tale well and in great detail.[22] He places a bit too much emphasis on the secrecy and undemocratic aspects of the Fed as cause of a policy that, as he sees it, sacrificed the economic fates of millions to the irrational fears of bondholders. He is right that the policy favored bondholders in the first instance, but his own story makes it obvious that the responsibility for policy extended far beyond the Fed. Panic about inflation, willingness to err toward severity rather than ease, and insistence on leaving the Fed alone came not from the Fed itself but from the establishment (particularly non-Keynesian) economists, the press, and the administration. Reagan believed in hard money; he was willing to use new worries about deficits to demand a new round of spending


cuts. Those Republican and moderate Democratic budgeters, who, unlike Reagan, were willing to raise taxes or restrain defense to reduce deficits, still believed that inflation and high interest rates were due to fiscal irresponsibility. Howard Baker would privately urge Volcker to loosen up, but Stockman, Weidenbaum, Jim Baker, Domenici, Dole, Hollings, and Chiles all directed most of their attention to the deficit.

Congress essentially had no answer when Volcker demanded that it put its own house in order. The economic logic may or may not have made sense; the political logic was overwhelming. As in 1980, if the government could not control its budget, how could the politicians criticize anyone else?

Thus, the administration was committed to "doing something" about the deficit, and its mainline Republican allies were demanding as much when its leaders gathered on September 9 for one more round of Stockman versus Weinberger. The president's speech about his new package had already been postponed from September 14 to September 24; his staff still had to figure out what he would say.

Weinberger again made the general case for the defense buildup. He talked about Soviet advantages in tanks and bombers, even though OMB had accepted DOD numbers on those items. DOD graphics dramatized the Russian threat but said little about real differences between plans. The best of these graphics was a cartoon showing three characters: one, a pygmy with no rifle, was Carter's budget; a second, "a four-eyed wimp who looked like Woody Alien, carrying a tiny rifle," was OMB's budget; DOD's plan was "G.I. Joe himself, 190 pounds of fighting man."[23] Stockman did not know what to say against this hour-long blast of what he considered irrelevance. There was too much to say and too little time; he couldn't be sure of agreement on anything, from the numerical bases to the need for any deficit package at all. As in a number of previous instances—most strikingly the meeting on "Chapter 2" business subsidies back in February—Stockman was too discouraged to take the issue right to his adversary, but he "could tell the President wasn't listening."[24]

Ronald Reagan did not enjoy working with details, and this disagreement, though Weinberger kept trying to obscure the issue, was essentially one of facts and particulars. He organized his presidency by setting clear policy directives and finding people who would run that way. He did not want to confront, never mind resolve, conflicts created when people working out parts of his agenda collided. He preferred they work it out among themselves so he could say his troops all agreed on a policy. Put differently, the president had given general policy direction; whether it leaned a bit this way or that need not, he felt, concern him, nor would he decide better had he considered it. Once more, therefore,


the president told his secretary of Defense and budget director to work out a compromise.

Because Cap didn't want to compromise and Stockman was furious at Weinberger's "intellectually disreputable … demeaning" presentation, that was none too likely. Meese and Baker, therefore, ganged up on the president to force him to make the choice—any choice. He did, but the three nonexperts in the room confused budget authority with outlays; what they thought was "splitting the difference" turned out to be the whole loaf for Weinberger. On Friday, September 11, Reagan had to go over it all again with Stockman and Weinberger. The president was fed up; the staff stayed away. Cap still refused to budge. Finally, Stockman, exhausted and discouraged, agreed to a $13 billion outlay reduction: $2 billion in FY82, $5 billion in FY83, and $6 billion in FY84.[25] Even then they disagreed about the base from which cuts would be made, but Reagan finally imposed a truce with a signed presidential directive.

"If I had to pinpoint the moment when I ceased to believe that the Reagan Revolution was possible," Stockman recalls, "Sept. 11, 1981, the day Cap Weinberger sat Sphinx-like in the Oval Office, would be it."[26] How could this be when even Stockman had no real desire to restrain defense? The answer lies in power over process. Until the defense dust-up, Stockman believed that he always had some arrows left in his quiver. Some solution or maneuver would be found. The events of September 1981 showed that the budget director was not making policy. They showed as well that Stockman's vision of policy making—clear debate on the merits—would not be attained. Stockman had been rolled by a Defense secretary who, in Stockman's mind, had not played fair. Whether the Reagan revolution ended on September 11 is open to doubt. By some calculations it still continues; by others, it ended on August 13 when Reagan signed the tax bill. But Stockman's revolution, his confidence, and his power did end on September 11, 1981, though his responsibility for budget numbers remained.

Reagan Loses Control

The defense decision was announced on September 12. As Stockman expected, it infuriated the gypsy moths and those who considered themselves responsible budgeters. On September 15 Howard Baker and Domenici urged Reagan to reconsider, but he refused. Senate Budget staff drafted an alternate proposal for much greater defense savings, though it still would have left a 7 percent increase. They also wanted to limit medicaid costs and change the formula for entitlement COLAs. But they


would be stymied by House Republicans, never mind Democrats, and the president.

In a leadership meeting, one by one Republican leaders vetoed alternatives. Silvio Conte (R-Mass.), Republican leader on House Appropriations, declared that "we've got those domestic appropriations bills so tight they squeak." Bob Dole protected the means-tested entitlements: "Somebody else is going to have to start taking a hit besides welfare recipients." Bob Michel exclaimed, "Judas Priest! There's got to be more than $2 billion of fat [in defense]. We've got to have some more give on defense, or we might not get anything at all up there in the House." John Tower replied that defense cuts would redound "to no one's benefit except the Kremlin."[27] As for social security, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was all geared up to blast any Republican move, and the Republicans knew it. An aide to Howard Baker recalls that staff and Domenici had convinced his Senate majority leader that shaving entitlements "was necessary and appropriate," but House Republicans, especially Kemp, wouldn't touch it; Baker saw no point in a losing battle. This aide neatly paraphrased Kemp's position: "I'm the heir to Reaganism, but that's nothing if the entitlements get cut." Stockman quotes House Minority Whip Trent Lott on the same subject: "There ain't a corporal's guard," Lott said, for touching social security.[28]

Hemmed in on all sides, Stockman and Darman finally decided to try to delay the second- and third-year tax cuts. They agreed on September 18 to try to convince first Baker, then Meese, then Regan, and finally the president. On Sunday, September 20, Meese agreed that Reagan should at least see the option. On Monday Regan objected, and his opposition only buttressed the president's. Reagan asked the obvious political question: "What would the people think?" He added, "We shouldn't even be discussing that idea. If our critics ever heard about it, they'd jump for joy."[29] A salesman who condemns his own product doesn't make many more sales. A leader cannot suddenly go back on his major promise to followers. But what, then, was the fast disappearing September offensive to include?

Meese immediately backed down, while providing the formula that would be used to justify tax hikes in future years: "If we do anything in the revenue category, it should be strictly under the heading of loopholes."[30] Loophole closings could be justified as matters of fairness, without going back on the general promise of lower rates. With only three days to go before the president's September 24 speech, however, Meese's suggestion was little help to Stockman.

At Monday afternoon's leadership meeting, House Minority Leader Michel told his president that support for a new package "just ain't there." The defense number was too small; he couldn't get the votes for cutting


other things and leaving the military virtually unscathed. Reagan insisted the whole administration agreed on defense need; anyone who read the papers knew better.

The next day the president slammed the door on tax cuts, saying "damn it, Dave, we came here to attack deficit spending, not put more taxes on the people."[31]

On September 24 Reagan went on television to announce the new, improved deficit-reduction plan, which was supposed to win the confidence of the markets. He proposed to reduce the deficit by $35.8 billion in FY84. Donald Regan at the last minute had offered $22 billion over three years in what were euphemistically called "revenue enhancements." Examples included eliminating some energy tax credits and restricting the use of tax-exempt industrial development bonds. Federal civilian employment would be cut by 75,000 people by 1984 (reducing "waste," of course), though no one knew where or how reductions might be made. Defense would be pared by $13 billion over three years; entitlements, except for social security, would be cut by $2.6 billion in FY82 and a total of $25 billion in the following two years. Here, as with revenue enhancements, Reagan did not have the details, promising only to provide them within a few weeks.

The president did speak about social security, but not to argue for reduced benefits. His allies had convinced him not to fight a battle he could not win and in which they might get killed. Reagan bowed to public pressure and announced support for restoring the minimum benefit. He also proposed a fifteen-member commission—with Reagan, Tip O'Neill, and Howard Baker each appointing five members—to prepare a proposal (in early 1983, safely after the midterm election) to solve the system's financing crisis. Until then, the pension trust fund could borrow from the medicare trust fund, which still had a surplus.[32]

There was, in short, no proposal, another magic asterisk, as Stockman says, save for a 12 percent across-the-board cut in domestic appropriations. Even there OMB was forced to announce exceptions, such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service and VA hospitals. Across-the-board cuts always sound good until someone points out what is actually getting cut. One also always has to ask, cut from what base? Here the administration disturbed a hornet's nest. They decided to cut from neither assumptions in Congress's budget resolution nor the reconciliation act but from proposals in the March budget revisions. The cuts therefore would undo all the bargains and adjustments of priorities that had been made over the previous six months. Table 5, prepared by the rather irritated Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition, provides some striking examples of the result.

Given February and March revisions, May and June deals, and September


Table 5. Spending Cuts Inflict Deeper Pain


Reagan proposal—March 10 (in $)

12% cut (in $)

Reconciliation level (in $)

Percentage of cut

Low-income weatherization plan





Economic Development Administration















Low-income energy aid





Handicapped education





Public housing operating aid





Vocation education





Impact aid for schools





Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, Titles IIA-C, IV





Highway aid





Community development





Northeast corridor rail aid





Mass transit aid





Source: National Journal, Oct. 3, 1981, p. 1779.

Note: The Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition has found that the 12 percent across-the-board budget authority cut proposed by President Reagan would actually mean substantially deeper cuts for many of the programs of interest to its members. The table shows the administration's March 10 spending proposals (in millions of dollars) for fourteen programs, the effect of a 12 percent cut on those proposals, the spending level authorized by the reconciliation bill enacted summer 1981, and the percentage cut below the authorized level that is represented by a 12 percent cut from the March 10 administration proposals.

changes, the media and politicians greeted Reagan's third and maybe fourth annual budget of 1981 with derision. The administration, Newsweek headlined, was "Running to Stay in Place."[33] The National Journal 's summary was "Reagan's budget plans generate tepid support, plenty of confusion."[34] Time commented that the president was "backpedaling furiously" on social security.[35] The attitudes of politicians and chief aides in Congress were no more encouraging. On the Republican side of House Appropriations, "They didn't really take it very seriously. That


was their private perception. Publicly there was some outrage." Over in Senate Budget, a source reports, "We thought they had been smoking dope. There was no way you could cut those things again."

The Economist summed up the reaction of the financial community while pointing out what was puzzling about the whole business:

At present the Reagan administration is surprising informed people mainly by its implausibility. The president's latest spending minicuts did not persuade investors that interest rates will come down, except investors who trust to Murphy's law that everything which can conceivably go right will from this moment be deemed to do so. Every private analyst who is not called Murphy is now forecasting a bigger American budget deficit in 1982 through 1985 than the White House does, especially as the fastest increasing spending program, which is defence, is the one most prone to overruns on costs. The difference of opinion is whether it is logical or rather nuts to suppose that a budget deficit of around 2 percent of gnp could send American inflation and interest rates soaring.[36]

Whether or not it was "rather nuts" to be so worried about the deficit, the worry, as The Economist noted, could be a "self-fulfilling expectation." In spite of his great victories, in September 1981 Ronald Reagan had placed himself in a situation similar to Jimmy Carter's in January 1980. Reagan's budget proposals were being mocked as too little to help and too big to be believed. Had he brazened it out, claiming that the deficit was part of putting the country on a new course, the president would only have had to deal with its size, not with his own credibility on insubstantial reductions. But then he would have needed a staff, especially a budget director, who shared his priorities. Like Carter before him, Reagan was now in the grip of a budget deficit panic that seemed more a matter of faith and group-think than a coherent model of the economy.

Bye, Bye, Balanced Budget

Senate Republicans outlined an alternative package of budget savings that would cut social spending less while raising taxes and slicing defense slightly more than the president had suggested. The gypsy moths were supporting larger defense reductions (which, we should always remember, still meant large increases in real defense expenditures).[37] Their willingness to defect was demonstrated by two votes on appropriations bills. In spite of opposition from the GOP leadership, the conference report on the HUD-Independent Agencies bill got enough Republican votes to pass on the House floor. Then thirty-nine Republicans, led by Silvio Conte, opposed a motion to recommit the Labor/HHS/Education bill so as to implement the 12 percent cuts. The motion failed, 168 to


249. Meantime the administration had not developed the promised package. Neither entitlement cuts nor revenue enhancements were revealed, as promised, on October 20. Not unreasonably, with his own men stymied, Reagan gave Howard Baker private approval to see what kind of deals the senators could work out for their proposed package.[38]

Democrats were emboldened by a September 23 rally in Washington, organized by a coalition of labor and civil rights groups, that drew 250,000 protesters of Reaganomics. As the recession deepened, the Democrats became assertive. "It is a shame," the Speaker declared, "that it takes the human tragedy of unemployment to show the Reagan economic nonsense for what it is." As their programmatic cuts were implemented, the result most embarrassing to the administration was the issuance of new regulations for school lunches, including one and a half ounce hamburgers with catsup defined as a vegetable. After Democratic senators munched a sample lunch at a press conference, the new regulations were withdrawn for redrafting.

The leading economic indicators had slumped 2.7 percent in September; the recession was looking longer and deeper all the time. On November 2 his economic advisers met with President Reagan for another round of crisis talk. Stockman and Senate leaders worked up an outline for changes that would eliminate the $100 billion deficit that senators (publicly) and Stockman (privately) expected in FY84. Senate Budget Committee Republicans envisioned, over three years, $80 billion in tax increases and $30 billion in defense spending decreases, compared to the March budget.[39] Now Stockman, aided by Baker, Meese, Weidenbaum, and Martin Anderson, sought the president's support. Donald Regan led the opposition.

Backed into a corner, the president declared, "I did not come here to balance the budget—not at the expense of my tax-cutting program and my defense program. If we can't do it in 1984, we'll have to do it later."[40] Or much later, for Reagan would not budge. When Stockman reminded Reagan that he as president was publicly committed to balancing the budget by 1984, Donald Regan disagreed, saying that this was only a target; the press had pushed Reagan into viewing it as a promise. Regan won on Monday; Stockman tried again on Tuesday, with commerce secretary Malcolm Baldrige's support, but to no avail; on Wednesday (November 4) the Treasury secretary told Senate leaders that there would be no tax hikes. Because the senators were unconvinced, on Thursday the president made a strong statement to a meeting of private money managers opposing tax increases. Reagan agreed with his advisers that it was not possible to balance the budget. "That's very obvious," he told them, "but a larger deficit is the least of our problems. What we have to do is get inflation down and business activity and employment


up. If there's a bigger deficit then, the man in the street will say, 'That's okay, things are better.'"[41]

House Republicans supported the president in rejecting the OMB/Senate "Fall Offensive." "You don't raise taxes during a recession," declared Jack Kemp. Barber Conable called fine-tuning the deficit in order to achieve a major reduction in interest rates "an exercise in moonbeams." "Changing your policy every Thursday afternoon isn't an economic program," he snorted.[42] Given enough mainstream conservative support, Reagan saw no political reason to budge. One can ask how all these people could be so foolish, as Stockman does, or why the president of the United States kept advisers who wanted him to be something other than he repeatedly insisted he was. The inconsistency was not within the president himself but within the advisory apparatus he created.

As for policy, Reagan did not accept the same analytical framework as either his frustrated budget director or most of his other aides. As he told Pete Domenici, in the final meeting of 1981's efforts to design a package, the issue was not the deficit; rather, "when government starts taking more than 25 percent of the economy, that's when the trouble starts. Well, we zoomed above that a long time ago. That's how we got this economic mess. We can't solve it with more of tax and spends"[43] That the rest of the industrialized world and, indeed, the United States had enjoyed the greatest prosperity in human experience with total government expenditures above the danger line did not enter Reagan's calculations: as we have seen, he saw that as "false" prosperity. Stockman, Domenici, and others kept trying to point out that even under very optimistic assumptions (5 percent real growth), the nation faced massive deficits. But Reagan accepted no such thing as a historically validated, reasonable limit to growth. As he felt later with his Star Wars initiative, the president was not convinced that just because something had not been done was no reason it could not be tried.

On November 6, 1981, Ronald Reagan publicly admitted that he could not expect to balance the budget in 1984; he adopted Regan's line that it had always been a goal, not a promise. On November 10, bowing to the lack of agreement within his congressional party and staff, the president announced that he would put off decisions on the promised tax and entitlement measures until the FY83 budget was issued in January. Retreat on two fronts made the administration all the more eager to show its toughness on the third. Reagan took a hard line on discretionary appropriations: "I stand ready to veto any bill," he told reporters at his press conference, "that abuses the limited resources of the taxpayers."

On that same day, Atlantic magazine hit the newsstands with William Greider's long article, "The Education of David Stockman." There was little in that piece that Stockman had not said in one form or another


to other reporters. Yet the blunt language—"supply-side was trickledown theory"; "the hogs were really feeding" on the tax bill; "there are no true conservatives in Congress"—and the powerful effect of seeing it all in one place created a sensation.[44] Democrats pounced on Stockman's admissions; the OMB wizard had been revealed as a blue-smoke-and-mirrors artist who admitted not only that all the numbers were bad but also that nobody understood them. Senator Hollings declared for the Democrats that "after the Stockman performance, I don't see how we could undercut the President."[45] White House and congressional figures were widely quoted, though not for attribution, claiming that the budget director had betrayed the president.

Anyone shocked by Stockman's revelations had not been following Washington politics very closely. The surprise was not Stockman's beliefs but his secret arrangement with Greider, assistant managing editor of the unfriendly Washington Post . It was not even a matter of feeding a reporter; experienced hands could usually identify the unnamed source of a reporter's story. The unusual part was Stockman's revelation of his own doubts. Washingtonians expect officials to use reporters to plant their private versions of reality into the public debate. The puzzle was how to explain the Stockman/Greider relationship in these terms. Either the budget director all along had been preparing an escape hatch—a defense so he would not be blamed if the policy blew up—or he was obtuse. Such were the conventional reactions, and there was surely some self-promotion and foolishness in the arrangement. There is something wistful yet wrong about wanting it both ways, as if only good intentions mattered. There was something more as well.

After one reads both Greider's and Stockman's books, it seems evident that their relationship was peculiarly equal. Rather than looking for information to publish, Greider was challenging Stockman's view of the world. And Stockman accepted it; as an ideologue who nevertheless believed in exchanging ideas, he was refreshed by a chance to question right and wrong, how the world works. Stockman's penchant for changing his mind seems almost immoral in the political world where commitment is everything; but for an academic, the continual willingness to criticize his own ideas and to take other critics seriously may be admirable. This is to endorse neither Stockman's policy judgment nor even the Greider arrangement. Rather, the fact, not merely the content, of conversations with Greider show how much Stockman remained the policy-oriented theorist who dreamed of a politics of justice resting on free-market economics.[46] Cynical in his manipulations, Stockman still could be shocked by Weinberger's failure to provide a good, clean, analytical debate on defense. He wanted to believe that a liberal like Greider could be won over by argument.


None of this garnered points for Stockman in November 1981. Instead he had to dramatically display loyalty to the administration, showing above all that he served at the pleasure of Ronald Reagan. Jim Baker provided the script: "You're going to have lunch with the President. The menu is humble pie. You're going to eat every last mother-f'ing spoonful of it. You're going to be the most contrite sonofabitch this world has ever seen." In a lengthy press conference after lunch, Stockman proclaimed his loyalty and described the lunch as "a visit to the woodshed after supper." An Oliphant cartoon showed Reagan and the paddled miscreant; a little creature in the corner of the drawing commented, "You should have used the other side of the axe!"[47] The public drama of a chastisement helped soften the scandal of Stockman's supposed apostasy.

In their meeting, Stockman reports, the story was quite different. Apologizing, he told the story of his long ideological journey—how he had worked to make Reaganism work only to be thwarted by the ways of politicians. The president, after all, had traveled the same path from small town values through a rejected liberalism and back to the right wing. Reagan, too, resented the politicians' obstruction; he was more than willing to believe that the press was the real enemy. He had read the article and judged, as we do, that the whole story was more about a frustrated zealot than an apostate. He had never liked to fire people; besides, Stockman knew the budget details that Reagan did not want to know, and the president also knew his budget director's biases. Reagan told Stockman to stay on.[48]

Although he stayed, the Atlantic article, as Laurence Barrett explains, deprived the budget director his "shield of purity. Now he could be attacked for his character as well as his policies."[49] Still, many felt better about an administration with Stockman than without him. Thirty-two Republican senators signed a letter to the president declaring that "we need him as part of the team."[50]

The Atlantic article, combined with Reagan's retreat from the balanced budget, raised questions about the administration's resolve on fiscal policy. With things sliding out of control, both budget director and president looked for a chance to reassert their authority.

Into the Heart of Budget Darkness

After the Senate had delayed all the appropriations in anticipation of the September 24 package, Congress passed a continuing resolution, expiring November 20, to buy time to figure out what to do with the new proposals.[51] As that deadline approached, congressmen wanted to go home before Thanksgiving. Both House and Senate leaders decided


to wrap up all appropriations in one big continuing resolution and extend it through September 30, 1982, so they could go home. On November 12, the House appropriations committee reported H.J. Res. 357, funding twelve remaining appropriations by a total of six different formulas.[52] From the administration's standpoint, there were two main difficulties: H.J.Res. 357 ignored much of the president's September reductions and allotted too little for foreign aid. All presidents, whatever their ideology, wind up fighting Congress for a bigger foreign aid budget; it is as inevitable as the Red Sox always breaking their fans' hearts in the end. The administration promised to veto the House CR.

"It's creepy," Silvio Conte declared. "There could be a real showdown…. Those guys up there [in the White House] are really adamant."[53] Congressmen showed little interest in the 12 percent cut. Both sides would have to compromise, bringing them to the really creepy part: no one knew how to keep score.

How could anyone tell if the CR met targets for deficit reduction? The CR provided budget authority, but outlays created deficits. If two (or three) sides were to negotiate on outlays, they would need to go through the bills account by account because in each account translating BA into outlays occurred at a different rate. There was no time for such detailed work. Instead there were across-the-board formulas, applied to such a variety of bases (conference reports, probably closer to the president's wishes; House committee reports, possibly further; and so on), that no one could fathom their relation to the president's proposals. As House minority whip Trent Lott described it, "We were working with different base lines and three different sets of figures, and the computers weren't talking to each other."[54] Worse still, much of annually appropriated domestic spending—food stamps, agricultural price supports, unemployment compensation—is really entitlement. In budget parlance, these are mandatory appropriations. An across-the-board cut, without changing underlying entitlement law, makes no sense. For that matter, House Appropriations leaders believed, one should only judge appropriations bills by whether they met targets for the discretionary balance of spending. If the economy went sour and mandatory estimates rose, Appropriations should not be blamed. House Budget agreed. OMB did not. By House scoring, therefore, the CR was only $1.9 billion over the September request for domestic spending and $6.3 billion below for defense. OMB instead claimed the CR was $10.3 billion over on domestic accounts.

Robert Michel proposed that the bill be recommitted with instructions to reduce funds by 5 percent for most nonentitlements, estimating a $4 billion savings. His motion lost, 189 to 201, as eighteen Republicans joined the majority. On November 16, the House CR, of indeterminate


cost, was passed and sent to the Senate, where, on November 19, the Senate stayed up all night to take twenty-three roll call votes and tie itself into knots.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, unlike their House colleagues, would not support the September 30 expiration date. They wanted a number of items in the defense appropriation bill debated, particularly the MX missile and B-1 bomber. After a filibuster threat by Carl Levin (D-Mich.), supported by Hollings and Nunn, GOP leaders changed the CR's expiration date to March 30. After considering a raft of options, GOP leaders also decided to support Howard Baker's plan to reduce domestic discretionary spending in the CR by 4 percent. A comment from Congressional Quarterly illustrates the complexity of the proposals that senators were being asked to understand:

As proposed, the amendment excluded defense, military construction, foreign aid and food stamp programs from the cuts. James A. McClure, R-Idaho, outlined on the floor a complex procedure for applying the amendment that narrowed its scope substantially. He said a program would not be affected by the cut if it was in a bill that overall was at or below the president's budget, or in a section of a bill that was at or below the budget, or even in an account listing within a section that was not over budget. Programs that were still eligible for cuts would be reduced 4 percent but not below the level of the budget.[55]

Got that? Good. Nobody else did.[56]

This new Republican proposal, which gave the president maybe about half of what he wanted, passed the Senate. On the evening of November 20, twenty-eight senators and twenty-one representatives met to resolve their differences in conference. It was a Friday night, so even though the previous CR would expire at midnight they had some time for negotiations. The major differences were over defense, which the House had reduced and the Senate had not, maybe $2 billion in domestic discretionary spending, and a similar amount of foreign aid. As the conferees wrangled, they finally decided that to represent the administration and make sense of the numbers they needed some help from Stockman. The budget director was glad to be wanted after two weeks of abuse stemming from the Atlantic article; he settled down with his pocket calculator and began pricing options.

By Saturday evening, the conferees were willing to accept the House proposal, more or less. When most participants went home around 1:30 Sunday morning, they thought they were near a deal, but they most certainly were not.

Stockman went back to OMB, fed that bargain into his computer, and decided that the new bill's changes in budget authority would not yield


the outlay reductions—roughly those in the Senate's bill—that he had defined as an acceptable compromise. Therefore, a Senate Appropriations source recalled,

Stockman recommended a veto on grounds of outlay. On Sunday morning there was a meeting in Howard Baker's office with Baker, Laxalt, Hatfield, McClure, Garn, Schmidt, Stevens, Jim Baker, Freidersdorf, and Stockman, and to a man the senators said, tell the president to sign it! Jim Baker said thank you very much, went downtown, and an hour later called back and said, "we're gonna veto it."

Conferees were upset. Referring to comments about "balancing the budget with mirrors," Senator Mark Andrews proclaimed that "we all thought we had done the job. But Stockman found he was using the wrong mirror, so he got himself another mirror."[57]

Congress had good reason to distrust Stockman's numbers, aside from his own statements in the Atlantic . At that point, House Appropriations, which had been building its computer system since 1974, was far ahead of either OMB or CBO on the technical side of scorekeeping. House Appropriations had a simple position on outlays: they should be ignored. Its staff and leaders said then, and say to this day, that outlays are a swamp; everybody should stick to things (i.e., budget authority) that are actually in the bills. Ultimately even OMB had to admit that House Appropriations had a point: One top official recalls that "we wanted to do the technically impossible"; another said that he "found out after that November veto that our numbers were as screwed up as on the Hill."

Nevertheless, House Republican leaders showed their loyalty to the president by opposing the conference agreement. Angry House Democrats chose to pass the bill so Reagan could veto it; then he would be blamed for shutting down the government on Monday morning for lack of funds. Reagan, however, expected to get credit for a veto against spending. This made the loyalist vote a bit difficult for senators to determine, as the Congressional Quarterly describes:

Majority Leader Baker gave conflicting signals on how he wanted party members to vote. At first, he announced his support for a vote to approve the conference report in order to get it to the president. But, in a debate that was repeatedly interrupted by laughter, Democrats relentlessly needled Baker about the contradictions of his position. "Do you vote for or against this conference report if you are trying to be a friend and supporter of the president?" asked J. Bennett Johnston, D-La. Finally Baker threw up his hands and urged members to vote however they felt. "All I want to do is make sure we get rid of this thing once and for all. As far as I am concerned, we could have a vote and you can vote it up or you can vote it down, but just vote it and get it over with."[58]


They voted it up; H.J.Res. 357, passed on nearly straight party-line votes by House Democrats and Senate Republicans, was sent off to the White House. Reagan, who privately had been arguing that economic and deficit problems were separate, then vetoed the bill, shutting down much of the government on November 23 and going on television to declare that spending $2 billion more (maybe) than he had been willing to accept risked "higher interest rates and inflation, and the continued loss of investment, jobs and economic growth."[59]

Under guidelines prepared after the 1980 near-misses, many functions did continue; but nonessential employees of many agencies were told to secure their files and go home. The White House made a point of phoning lawmakers to tell them that White House tours for their constituents had been canceled on account of the budget impasse. Everybody having made their points, House Democrats then extended the old CR. They wanted it to expire on February 3, but, when the Republicans insisted on December 15, the Speaker only mildly resisted Conte's motion to change the date. The new CR passed both houses with ease.

The political implications of the CR fiasco far exceeded what small effect it may have had on policy. It foreshadowed years of byzantine battles over scorekeeping, posturing by all sides to make the other look bad, and conflict over priorities masquerading as a contest over fiscal policy. It fed Senate Republicans' distrust, later converted into a sense of betrayal by the administration. And it made the stakes not only policy but also tests of will among the factions controlling parts of the government. Most of all, the erosion of the September offensive, from a serious assault on the deficit to a conflict over about 2 percent of domestic discretionary spending, showed how much the tide had changed in four months. No longer the initiator and leader, the administration was now just one player, better at blocking action than controlling it.

Everybody went home for Thanksgiving, where Robert Michel hoped that they might "have a little bit of wine and turkey, and all the rest … back with the home-folks, and come back here with a fresher view."[60] When everybody returned from Thanksgiving, everyone was fresher, but nothing was easier.


A Government Divided

What members found at home was no cause for thanksgiving. Unemployment climbed to 8.8 percent in December. As people stopped buying their products, businesses stopped investing to produce more. The public's reaction to the slump eliminated the sense that Congress had to follow the president, without providing a clear alternative message.

The Initiative Shifts toward Senate Republicans

In December only 36 percent of voters said they were better off than a year before; 59 percent felt they were not.[1] In January a Gallup poll reported that 53 percent wanted Democrats to win their congressional district, compared to 41 percent for Republicans. The public still approved Reagan's performance but by the lowest marginal percentage ever after one year of a presidency (52 to 38). On any particular issue—the tax cut, greater emphasis on inflation than on jobs, effectiveness on inflation—narrow margins continued to endorse Reagan. But that seemed, as Gallup's president put it, "hope—not conviction."[2]

The voters distrusted the Democrats even more than Reagan; one-quarter had "a lot of confidence" in his ability to solve the nation's economic problems, while only one-tenth had confidence in the Democrats. In the abstract, people favored "greater cuts in government spending." They also opposed higher income or gas taxes. Unfortunately for Reagan, there was little support for cutting specific programs. A plurality wanted to reduce defense.[3]

The economy continued to slide. Unemployment rose to 9.8 percent by July and 10.8 percent in November. Gross private domestic investment fell by more than 20 percent between the third quarters of 1981 and 1982. By December 1982, industrial production fell to the level of


1977. Supply-siders had argued Americans would work harder because of lower marginal tax rates. However, there were many implicit qualifications; for example, a sufficient supply of money should manifest this incentive, and the cuts should be not merely anticipated but actually effected. But no one was hiring.[4]

As the recession deepened, so did public skepticism about Reagan's leadership, the military buildup, and scheduled tax cuts.[5] Strong majorities opposed further cuts in aid to the poor. In March the most popular option for reducing the deficit, by a 5 to 3 margin, was eliminating the July 1982 tax cut.[6] There would be far less support for raising taxes once people had the cut in their pocket.

Unlike other presidents, however, Reagan's support would not go into a free-fall. By July the decline had halted, even though the economic slump intensified further. His hard core of supporters, present since early in his administration, held firm at around 40 percent of the electorate. Thus, he would not feel as pressured as Carter; yet he also could not rally public support behind him.

Public opinion encouraged stalemate. So did economic logic: massive deficits fueled calls for budget restraint, but the recession provided a strong argument against spending cuts or tax increases. Both concerns, deficit reduction and the recession, lessened the confidence of Reagan's original supporters. "We really believed—and still do—that what we did was right," said boll weevil Billy Lee Evans of Georgia. "All of us would just like to see some indication that these things are working."[7] Donald Regan argued the program had not gone far enough; if the tax cut had been 10 percent in July, none of this bad news would be happening. This classical argument to do more—equally applicable to bombing North Vietnam or spending money on poverty programs—was drowned in a sea of economists condemning the deficit. Of course, as the early December meeting of Time 's Board of Economists revealed, the economists differed widely about both the relevant evils and their solutions.[8]

Elite opinion was revealed most clearly when CEA member William Niskanen, on December 8, told a seminar at the American Enterprise Institute that, according to his research, "there is no direct or indirect connection between deficits and inflation."[9] Niskanen had resigned from the Ford Motor Company because he refused to offer arguments contrary to his personal beliefs in regard to the undesirability of restricting foreign competition. On this occasion, Niskanen had correlated size of deficit with all manner of bad things and had found no relationship. So, as usual, he told the world what he thought. Niskanen was immediately blasted by all the organs of "responsibility," such as Time and Newsweek . "It was a 'How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Deficit' performance that stunned me nearly speechless," said Republican and former


OMB chief economist Rudolph Penner (who in 1983 would replace Alice Rivlin as CBO director).[10] The spiraling deficit numbers made it easy to accuse the administration of trying to slough off responsibility.

"Responsible opinion," with its horror of deficits, was deeply entrenched in the White House itself. It just didn't include the president, who identified deficits only with deficit spending. He wanted to cut spending, but, if he could not, Reagan would live with the contradiction between his present results and his past efforts as the scourge of budget deficits. The Economist expressed the divisions within the administration very nicely at the end of 1981:

"We stick with our tax programme," Mr. Reagan told his news conference on December 17th. "We go forward with the reduction in tax rates. I have no plans for increasing taxes in any way." Both in the White House and at the treasury his advisers are divided about the extent to which the president means what he says. Those who doubt the magical revenue-yielding properties of supply-side economics think he is going to have to ask for some new taxes sooner or later, and so they explain that when he says "taxes" he only means income tax, he is not ruling out the customs or the excise. Their only ground for this contention is that, if it is not so, the budget prospect becomes too horrible to contemplate. Mr. Reagan has given no sign at all that he shares their alarm. Unlike the Democratic economists, he does not see a remission of tax as an expenditure; to him it is a beneficent shrinkage of government interference in the life of man.[11]

Both sides were correct: the president did not accept his aides' logic, but he was going to be forced to raise taxes anyway. He was determined, but the pressure was intense—and his credibility was reduced as the economy went to hell in a handbasket.[12] Like Carter in 1980, Reagan would be pressed to "do something."

Reagan did want to balance the budget, but he didn't want to give up the rest of his program to do it. Far better, in his view, he strove to make deficit reduction compatible with his preference for smaller domestic government. Reagan so disliked domestic government programs that he could give a little on taxes and defense to get some social-spending reduction. The difficulty was that Reagan's idea of compromise—given his rather extreme position relative to other politicians on most of these issues—might not look like much of a deal to others. Still, the bounds of negotiation could be revealed only by experience. If some package could win the president's approval, he might, in turn, be able to help it pass in Congress.

From that day to this, the search has been on for a formula to compel Congress and the president to do right, that is, to balance the budget quickly and sensibly. Senate Republicans played the central role in the


search for this formula-to-end-all-formulas because they cared the most about balance. Liberal House Democrats and conservative Republicans in the administration cared about deficits as well. We will see why the Democrats became even more interested in balance than they had been in Carter's time. Yet the two wings stood for other things as well. The right was against domestic government and taxes and for a strong defense. The left was for domestic government and its efforts to provide social security in the widest sense. The center, however, stood for balance above all; balance as proof that the system was working, that they as politicians and the nation as a community were responsible, that they could govern. At times, Senate Republicans had help from these moderate Democrats. Hollings, and later Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), led Democratic budget balancers. The great organs of opinion—New York Times, Washington Post, and the newsweeklies—also led demands for action against the deficit. Mainstream economists found certainty again and joined the chorus. Still, the protagonists of that period from August 1981 through December 1982 would be Senate Republicans, continually searching for a position on which they could unite and to which they could win over the president.

Senate leaders (Howard Baker, Robert Dole, Pete Domenici, and Appropriations Chairman Mark Hatfield) had made clear all along they were worried about deficits but thought that a new Republican president should be given a chance. When the economy began to deteriorate, they could argue for modifications in the program, suggesting alternatives, without seeming to abandon either principle or the constituents who elected them.

Selling a deficit package to all the other factions in the government would not be easy, for Ronald Reagan's victories obscured many divisions within Congress.

Lots of Attitudes Mean Little Latitude

We have argued that the bargaining over Ronald Reagan's taxing and spending package was shaped by the difficulty of uniting southern Democratic boll weevils and northern Republican gypsy moths. The circumstances of early 1981 were ideal for overcoming such divisions. A new president was on his honeymoon; the failures of his predecessor fed a demand to "do something"; the president had no failures of his own to defend; the public was willing to give him a chance; members of his party, elated by control of one branch of Congress for the first time in a generation, united to show they could govern. Senate Republican unity on budget votes was unprecedented.[13] House GOP unity, though limited to far fewer votes, was nearly as impressive. Thus, Reagan was able to


hold his party and win over enough House boll weevils to build a majority. All the favorable circumstances vanished by the end of 1981; they are summarized in the fact that the president was no longer leading. After the September offensive fizzled, budget votes were no longer matters of support for "the president's program." As program content became more important, therefore, so did the divisions of preference among congressmen.

These divisions, shaping decisions in both chambers, were both more visible and more effective in the House. Senate Republicans, under the skillful leadership of Howard Baker, trying to make the most of their rare opportunity to govern, knowing that if they could settle differences among themselves that would be enough, remained remarkably unified. The House had no such governing party; Republicans needed help from the boll weevils, who in turn were very different from most Democrats.

Party, region, and ideology are the major cleavages among American politicians and voters. They overlap in large measure, but nowhere near perfectly.

Broadly defined, a party is an alliance of politicians united to help each other win elections, control Congress and the presidency, and thereby enjoy the fruits of government. Members of Congress vote with their party because this stable, if rather weak, system helps them know who their friends are. But party also has a strong, often forgotten, ideological component. The budget battles highlighted deep differences within parties in attitudes toward the government and the market. In the United States, what makes party divisions rather messy is a disjunction between party as alliance and party as ideology. That disjunction is mainly a consequence of regional divisions.

The heritage of slavery exacerbated regional economic differences. Until the 1960s, Civil War memories and the search for allies to defend the remnants of its "peculiar system" left the Democratic party as the only party in the South. Republicans, who waged the Civil War, were not welcome. The Great Depression gave Democrats something like parity in the Northeast and Midwest, making them, because of their southern monopoly, the normal party of government. Yet the powerful unions and ethnic groups in the North fit very badly with the WASP conservatism of the South. In the 1960s, when Democrats in the North finally turned on their southern compatriots over civil rights, Republicans began to court the South. At the same time many more liberal Republicans in the North moved toward the Democrats.

From 1964 to 1980 the disjunction between ideological and regional bases of the parties diminished. Yet many Democrats in the South held ideologies that did not much resemble northern liberalism. Especially on issues of race, religion, and social values, Republicans in the Northeast,


upper Midwest, and Pacific Coast states were far from comfortable with their party's courtship of the South. They were descendants of the Yankees who, though quite capitalist, had a "commonwealth" ethic of noblesse oblige and community governance that fit poorly with both Reaganite individualism and New Right moralism. As we saw, their districts' material interests also made these gypsy moths more supportive of social programs than were most Republicans.

For most legislators, the 1981 battles on the budget resolution, reconciliation, and tax cut saw party, ideology, and regional interest support each other. The boll weevils, however, followed ideology and interest over party, while the gypsy moths favored party. All that was possible because attention was focused on general characterizations of policy rather than on program content. When the issue became content, as on the tax auction, less grand definitions of interest became more relevant.


Every bill will tap partisan and regional interests. Both a bill's debate and its provisions shape attitudes. We know, for example, that members of Congress are more willing to cut programs if they can focus attention on the money saved, not the programs cut. That was one point of reconciliation; it is also seen in the popularity of across-the-board cuts, rather than targeted ones, like those at the end of 1981.[14] Because each bill poses issues differently, we need to look at many bills in order to understand the cleavages within Congress about budget policy. When we look at such a variety of bills, we see less stable coalitions than our previous story suggested. Yet amidst the cacophony of roll calls is a modicum of order, enough to suggest why Congress would have trouble solving the budgetary dilemma.

House members in the 97th Congress may be divided into six groups, more or less from right to left: domestic opposers, responsible conservatives, Sunbelt conservatives, Frostbelt moderates, Democratic loyalists, and diehard liberals.

Approximately forty opposers were fervent supporters of Ronald Reagan, and almost all were Republicans. They were distinguished from other Reaganites by their unwillingness to compromise even as much as their leader. They opposed the domestic government at every opportunity. They voted against individual appropriations that almost all other members supported. They voted against continuing resolutions. They voted against a tax hike even when endorsed by the president. They voted for spending cuts everywhere but in defense; for example, they supported cuts in farm programs and water projects.

About fifty responsible conservatives included most of the Republican


leadership and a few Democrats. They were stronger for budget balance, as opposed to simply opposing spending. Thus, they would support the 1982 tax increase, casting far fewer symbolic votes against routine appropriations, while supporting Reagan's basic priorities.

Unlike the first two groups, the ninety or so Sunbelt conservatives were united more by region than by party. About two-thirds were from the South, and Republicans constituted a slight majority. These members were quite conservative, but regional interest came first. They backed Reagan in hiking defense and cutting urban programs but, unlike the previous two groups, strongly supported rural "pork": water projects and farm subsidies. They also voted against the 1982 tax hike.

The sixty Frostbelt moderates were the regional mirror of the Sunbelt conservatives. Almost all from the North, they were willing to cut farm subsidies and water projects. While they supported Reagan on most big votes, they were uncomfortable with the military buildup, particularly when forced to choose between it and medicare. This largely Republican group was the broadest definition of the gypsy moths,

Around seventy members were Democratic loyalists, mostly southern and western Democrats who shared regional concerns with Sunbelt conservatives but who were much more comfortable with the Democratic party. Some were liberal; some were senior; all were pretty loyal. Their regional interests showed up in strong support for agriculture and water projects. They were more prodefense than were Frostbelt moderates. They opposed Reagan on major votes and strongly supported the appropriations bills, compromises no one loved, which kept the government running.

The last and largest, though outnumbered, group was around 110 diehard liberals who were northern Democrats. They opposed Reagan at almost every turn. They particularly opposed the defense buildup. They agreed with Stockman and Reagan, however, in one area: they didn't like rural subsidies, crop supports, and water projects. Some of this opposition was regional interest; some was the attitude toward business subsidies represented in support for reconciliation by Representatives Seiberling and Miller, the liberal side of Stockman's argument about justice and corruption.

The administration's maximum coalition consisted of the first four groups, between 240 and 250 members. But it would not be so easy to get because the Frostbelt moderates and Sunbelt conservatives did not agree on much of substance. Furthermore, a moderate-conservative budgeting compromise, if it lost the opposers, would need backing from members of one of the two Democratic groups. House Democrats, meanwhile, would have their own problems assembling a majority. They could rely on only two groups, about 180 to 190 members. If they allied with


the Frostbelt moderates, the loyalist Democrats would worry about defense and rural programs; alliance with Sunbelt conservatives was even less likely because they and the diehard liberals disagreed on virtually everything.

These groupings only reflected tendencies; on any particular issue, local concerns and the merits of the individual case would affect many members. If a vote was on one issue, rather than on a package, members could be targeted and lobbied, as on civil service retirement in the 1980 reconciliation. The clearest case of pressure occurred in May 1981, on the Export-Import Bank.

Congress had to pass a very large supplemental appropriation, H.R. 3512, before the FY81 CR expired on June 5. Reagan used the opportunity (so kindly granted by the Democrats' maneuvers) to request $15 billion in rescissions and an extra $12 billion in military spending. He had the whip hand because spending was expiring; the rescissions were mainly in slow-spending programs like housing; and, after reducing the rescission slightly, Congress passed the package easily. In the course of House consideration, however, Appropriations split the difference between the Export-Import Bank's $5.9 billion existing FY81 loan authority and Stockman's request of $5.1 billion. Diehard liberal David Obey submitted an amendment to cut to Stockman's level.

Export-Import's biggest beneficiaries are very large corporations (like Boeing) and big, very liberal unions (for example, the machinists, who work for Boeing). Good Republicans and good Democrats. Obey won, 234 to 169, on a ballot that split the parties (Republican 113 to 70, Democrat 121 to 99) and our six groups. Only the opposers, who disliked all subsidies (by 36 to 4) and the Sunbelt conservatives, who represented little industry that benefited from the Bank (by 62 to 21) came down strongly on one side of the issue. That night the affected groups got to work, and the next day the House reversed itself. The biggest switches were among the subsidy-oriented Sunbelt conservatives and the Democratic loyalists. The former went from 62 to 21 in favor of cutting to 42 to 40 opposed. The moderate loyalists went from 35 to 30 in favor of cutting to 52 to 14 opposed. Only the opposers and the responsible conservatives hardly moved at all after the lobbying blitz. Obey lost, 162 to 237. A program supported by business and labor groups was still hard to reduce. Lobbying pressure was most effective on an isolated issue, especially when applied to those members with least ideological or partisan commitment to reductions per se.[15] They, however, were a majority.

Diverse preferences were highlighted most clearly in a series of votes on the reauthorization of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). Reagan had wanted to kill Legal Services ever since, when he was governor of


California, California Rural Legal Assistance, funded by Legal Services, had blocked some of his policy initiatives in the courts. Local legal services agencies had a disconcerting and well-publicized habit of suing local and state authorities who, the poverty lawyers believed, were administering programs in ways contrary to the law. The LSC lawyers also won frequently. Many conservatives did not approve of the federal government paying liberal attorneys to sue the locals; even some moderates were uneasy with the idea. Liberals admired it: because everybody else had access to the courts for such purposes, so should the poor or, at least, their self-appointed legal advocates.

An amendment to ban political action by legal services agencies passed 275 to 146, with diehard liberals heavily opposed and moderate loyalists split evenly. It should be noted that, because few Republicans worked at the typical legal services agency, political action generated massive Republican opposition. A ban on lawsuits against governments also passed. The most revealing vote came on a motion to recommit (that is, kill) the legislation. It was phrased as allowing a hearing on the president's proposals (i.e., to eliminate the LSC), thereby making the vote more a matter of loyalty to the president than it would otherwise have been. Yet recommittal lost 176 to 233, as forty-two Republicans voted against it. Opposers and Sunbelt conservatives strongly supported the motion. Diehard liberals and moderate loyalists strongly opposed it. Responsible conservatives mainly supported their president, but the Frostbelt moderates voted almost two to one against recommittal. Even in June 1981 they would go only so far in support of the president.


The Export-Import Bank showed how group pressures could limit spending cuts. Legal Services showed the ideological limits on Reagan's revolution. The farm bill, later in 1981, showed why both budgeting and politics are very difficult. Sometimes you just can't tell who will ally with whom or what a proposal will do if it passes.

Agriculture is the nation's largest industry and, going back to clipper ship days, a major export industry. Modern agriculture is very capital-intensive; for most crops, tractors, land, and feed cost far more than the labor employed. Farmers often carry considerable debt, so they are at risk in bad years. Bad years come fairly frequently because prices fluctuate greatly. Prices depend on supply, which depends on weather, not only in the United States, but in the rest of the world. The only thing as bad for a wheat farmer as bad weather at home is really good weather in Argentina.

Farmers, therefore, always want assurances of what they consider reasonable


prices. Since the Depression, the government has tried to help. Economists have argued all along that these attempts to help farmers could only make them inefficient. They have been wrong and right: American agriculture gets steadily more productive and efficient, meaning the number of farmers continues to decline. No generation has been quite willing to take the economists' advice. The result has been a complex system whose terms change as market conditions change or costs get too high or some crop's supporters come up with a new idea.

The variety of programs and crops makes farm subsidy politics a fragmented arena. There are, however, some natural alliances by region: cotton, sugar, tobacco, and peanuts from the South; wheat, corn, and soybeans from the North. Certain crops, particularly the grains, are more vulnerable than others to the vagaries of weather and international markets. The combination of regional histories and crop peculiarities has divided the farm bloc into a liberal/radical side (the National Farmers Union and, somewhat, the Grange) and a wealthier conservative side (the Farm Bureau).

Farm Bureau types were more likely to look to export markets for higher profits; the Reagan administration hoped to reduce costs while helping their constituents by promoting exports. Many farmers, however, saw no need to take risks; if the government wanted to help exports, that was great. But if prices went down, those farmers wanted to preserve the existing system, built from a series of logrolls. They stuck together, recognizing their individual weakness: tobacco helped corn, cotton helped soybeans, and milk helped peanuts.

One more giant logroll lay at the heart of farm policy. Nonfarmers had at best a mixed interest in high prices for farmers because, after all, nonfarmers had to pay for the farmers' food. Also, farmers, in spite of their risks, were frequently quite well-off and distinctly Republican. Even the more liberal farmers tended to come from areas, like the Dakotas, of traditional Republican loyalty. So the big city liberals and the farm representatives made a deal; the former would support farm programs if the latter would support food stamps. Food stamps and farm programs were authorized every four years or so in the farm bill. It was an unstable marriage because, although the partners did not much like each other, they needed each other.

The farm bill came up again in 1981. Its consideration was shaped by events during the battle over reconciliation. When a number of farmstate legislators made food stamp cuts real by voting for Gramm-Latta 2, they broke the alliance with urban liberals. The liberals would remember.

The farm bill was already in trouble when it hit the House floor in October. It originated in the Senate, where Agriculture Chairman Jesse


Helms was not likely to ask for, or get, much help from his more liberal colleagues and Republican leaders were leery of the deficit. "We've never had such a hard time, believe me," said one peanut lobbyist. "Agriculture needs to stand together, but we seem to be getting nothing but splinters."[16] First, the Senate cut the milk price support level from 80 to 70 percent of "parity." (Parity is quickly defined as the price when times were very, very good.) That was what the Reagan administration wanted. Then, even though the administration sat on the sidelines, as it had promised Georgia House members in the reconciliation fight, Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) led an attack on the peanut allotment system. Despite Howard Baker's support, a motion to table Lugar's proposal was beaten 56 to 42. A senator commented that the vote reflected antagonism against Helms. Only a hastily drafted compromise preserved a weakened peanut support system. The farm coalition barely protected sugar and tobacco. Robert Dole led a move to trim back increases that the Agriculture committee had mandated for wheat, rice, corn, and cotton. "I'll be criticized by some in my wheat-growing state for this," Dole explained, "but the farmers want us to stop spending, and they are willing to make some sacrifices."[17] Senate events made farm block House members justifiably nervous.

The House then passed a bill that was more generous than the Senate's. The key consideration was that the administration, in cutting deals with the southern Democrats on sugar, peanuts, and tobacco, so as to pass the tax cut and reconciliation, lost its ability to ask midwestern Republicans to sacrifice their programs on the altar of deficit reduction. Therefore, they allied with northern Democrats to (a) protect the North and (b) take revenge on those southern crops whose programs were protected in the earlier deals.[18] Diehard liberals, Frostbelt moderates, and responsible conservatives led the charge to repeal the peanut allotment system and sugar price supports. Diehard liberals had no reason to support fellow Democrats, like the Georgians and Louisianians, who had deserted them on food stamps. Only on tobacco, where the North Carolina delegation had supported the Speaker on the big budget votes, did the diehard liberals have no reason to take revenge. And enough of them supported the program for it to go unscathed.

The bill went off to conference. Tobacco, peanuts, and sugar survived, but, by the standards of previous years, the compromise seemed favorable for the Reagan administration.

Democratic leaders did object to giving Reagan another shot at the farm bill in 1983. So after a series of mostly nonpartisan votes, as Frostbelt moderates and diehard liberals cooperated to cut subsidies, the proposal to cancel FY84–85 reauthorizations resulted in nearly party-line division. Democrats won 201 to 188, picking up 9 Republicans and losing


only 22 Democrats. The farm bill then passed 205 to 173, with mostly Democratic votes. The administration was unhappy with its totals; some liberals thought it was too generous; some moderates felt things had worked out just right; and some Sunbelt conservatives decided they had better take what they could get.[19]

The greatest irony in the farm story was yet to come. The administration, which had not quite understood how farm programs worked, made some mistakes. As the year went on, it became clear that the farm economy was in a serious depression. Prices slumped; farmers defaulted on their loans; and the federal government spent three times more than planned on aid to farmers.[20] All the permutations of ideology and interest, ambition and revenge, had far less effect on spending than did the inexorable workings of the economy.

With a series of uneasy compromises 1981 drew to an end. In late November, the House passed a DOD appropriation. Support for the military was still high as the House gave the administration almost all it wanted. Proposals to delete funds for the MX missile and B-1 bomber received only 143 and 148 votes, respectively. Yet a 2 percent cut in procurement and R&D lost by only 204 to 209, with northern Republicans, such as Bill Frenzel, using the opportunity "to warn the Defense Department that, unless it demonstrates a real commitment to reduce wasteful, unnecessary spending, it will lose the strong coalition that now supports the strengthening of our defense."[21]

Congress also faced the embarrassing task of passing a second budget resolution. Senate Budget reported out a second resolution that, as the Congressional Quarterly reports, "merely reaffirmed the first…. The report accompanying the resolution was a long disclaimer for the committee's action. 'Approval of the resolution, without recommendation, is a stopgap solution to a problem that the committee found intractable at this time.'"[22] The resolution passed 49 to 48. Democratic and Republican budget leaders cooperated in getting the Senate's resolution passed on the House floor, 206 to 200. The leaders all admitted they were just trying to get rid of the darn thing. "There should be no confusion that this will get us through the year," said James Jones. "But this is the only thing upon which we can reach agreement."[23] When the only thing people can agree on is pure fantasy—budget balance without budget action—they are in trouble.

As Congress passed this pro forma budget on December 11, it also finished work on a third continuing resolution. H.J.Res. 370, as passed, followed negotiations among administration and congressional Republican leaders, particularly Mark Hatfield and Silvio Conte, moderate leaders of Republicans on the two appropriations committees. The resolution cut discretionary spending by 4 percent from the levels in Senate or


House pending bills, whatever that meant; the provisions as to which bill applied were as complicated as those in the aborted second CR. The package also increased spending for education block grants, railroad retirement pensions, and low-income energy assistance—sweeteners for gypsy moths like Hatfield and Conte. All in all, H.J.Res. 370 was estimated to reduce domestic outlays by $3.7 billion from previous estimates of the totals for the bills included.

Work continued on regular appropriations. The HUD bill totaled $1.7 billion more in budgetary authority than the president's September request for $58.7 billion, but it also allowed Reagan to cut by 5 percent any budget account that exceeded the September request. It therefore was essentially a victory for the president.

The most complicated battle at the year's end involved foreign aid. The foreign aid bill had not passed in either 1979 or 1980, in part because Congress thought it was in the domestic aid business and in part because of bitter partisan divisions over the proper balance between military and economic assistance. The tortuous bargaining process within both the House and the conference committee ended in a compromise that not only preserved the usual balance between economic and military assistance but actually produced a bill. If there was a hero in the process, it was Jack Kemp, who designed and fought for the crucial compromise on International Development Association funding.

Thus, the year ended with three bills still financed by a CR (Labor-HHS-Education, State-Justice-Commerce-Judiciary, Treasury-Postal-General Government), while Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, and Tip O'Neill worked together for a foreign aid spending increase!

The CR and foreign aid compromises might encourage the moderates who hoped all good men could agree on a responsible deficit-reduction package. The budget resolution sham could only discourage them. In retrospect, the signs were discouraging, but that is more obvious now than it was then.

The gypsy moth-boll weevil coalition had already been pushed as far as it could go. Without that coalition, there was no governing majority in the House. The politicians, however, could not know as much. Take the Democrats. They could see that the gypsy moths' ideology and district interest should keep them from supporting further social spending cuts, but the trouble was that the moths, by that logic, should not have supported Reagan to begin with. When you have been clobbered three times in a row, it is hard to believe that won't happen again.

Reagan's victories, even though they had ended five months before, were so dramatic, so different from results in previous years, that no one could be sure of their calculations. Stockman had lost a lot, but he had won some, too. The Republican budgeters in the Senate had been


thwarted in the fall. But they controlled their chamber; they had won smashing victories on spending earlier; Reagan had not been around long enough for the senators, or even his staff, to appreciate the depth of his preference for tax cuts and a defense buildup over budget balance. The shifting coalitions we have detailed in the House could mean many things; on peanuts, for example, the House floor had gone beyond the Reagan administration's efforts to cut programs.

The forces of responsibility could also be encouraged by 1981's budget processes. The first resolution was enforced as fully as could be reasonably expected; as CBO later reported, deficits stemmed from the economy, not from congressional failure to keep budget promises.[24] Reconciliation obviously provided a means to package major deficit reductions. If agreement could be forged, it could be enacted.

Carter's January 1980 deficit projection had been $15 billion; Reagan's December 1981 projection, based on the evident recession, was ten times as much. The problem kept getting larger; agreement, so fervently desired, was growing correspondingly more difficult. And the Republicans were divided. Howard Baker pressed for reductions in the defense budget: "I cannot believe that out of a budget as large as the Pentagon budget … we can't find $5 billion or maybe $10 billion that we can save."[25] He was skeptical about further cuts to discretionary programs: "We may have overdone it already with some of them."[26]

Taking in the deficit prospect and the cleavages in his own party and the rest of Congress, Silvio Conte concluded, "What we really need is a magic wand. There's going to be a hell of a crunch here."[27]

The Party of Responsibility

As 1981 ended, the governing Republicans in the administration and Congress were deep into maneuvers over a budget plan for FY83. A year earlier the president had clearly set the tone and direction. Now the issue was not how or even how far to pursue his radical agenda; rather than a basic position altered at the margins to win crucial votes, with most votes taken for granted, the very nature of the entire package now had to be negotiated.

Over the course of many months, Senate Republicans would craft a package and convince the rest of the political system to support it. With the economy at its worst in more than forty years and with an election imminent, GOP senators managed a tax increase, called the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA, or the 1982 act, to be distinguished from the 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act, ERTA; the names say much). Passage of a tax increase under such circumstances was surprising enough; perhaps equally interesting were the bill's provisions.


Straw-bossed by a mainstream Republican senator, Finance Chairman Dole, aided by quiet advice from Treasury, Senate Finance produced a package including many tax reforms long coveted by the Senate's dying breed of liberals. In other legislation, social spending was reduced, but not so much as the president might have hoped at the time he agreed to the deal. All in all, the 1982 budget battles were bravura performances by Senate Republicans, particularly Howard Baker and Robert Dole.

Baker was the consummate insider, a self-described "congressional brat," son of a House member, son-in-law of longtime Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), himself minority leader from 1976 to 1980. Baker was best known to the public for his performance on the Senate Watergate committee. He appeared earnest and diligent, continually asking, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" (He could not then have imagined trying to protect another president against similar questions.) It is probably a sign of Baker's talent that Nixon's men thought he was aiding them, while as informed an analyst as Michael Barone of The Almanac of American Politics was convinced that Baker was trying to discover the truth. With his colleagues, Baker's greatest skill seemed to be the ability to make them feel good about going along with him. His personal skills, along with a fine sense of timing and maneuver, made him, by general acclamation, the most effective majority leader since (the very different) Lyndon Johnson.

Baker combined basically conservative policy preferences with an emphasis on doing the work of government. He deviated from conservative positions on matters that could be construed as questions of responsibility; for example, he supported the Panama Canal treaty and rejected ideological crusades on emotional issues like abortion.[28] Balance was Baker's policy, compromise his forte.

Robert Dole, who became chairman of Finance in 1981, was known mainly for his acerbic wit and partisanship. As chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1971 and 1972 and vice presidential nominee in 1976, Dole had seemed more a hatchet man than a creative politician. But Bob Dole was complicated. Badly wounded in World War II—after months of recovery, left without the use of his right hand—he was both an advocate for the handicapped and an architect of the food-stamp program.

In the United States it is especially important to know where a person comes from because the meaning of left and right, liberal and conservative, varies from one place to another. In The Almanac of American Politics, Michael Barone described Dole as a man

whose values and beliefs remain very deeply rooted in Kansas, but who is also a Washington insider, a politician who knows the Senate, the lobbyists,


the media—and has been around long enough to see the individual senators, lobbyists and reporters come and go.

To understand Dole's politics, you have to understand that he … comes from a state where Republicanism is the natural affiliation of the majority and where the Republican Party's base is broad…. Kansas Republicanism believes in free enterprise, but it also understands that the untrammeled operation of the free market is going to hurt a lot of people. Kansas' populist past, and its frequent farm revolts, reinforce that lesson: Republicans as well as Democrats here believe in some sort of safety net. And, living in small towns where everyone knows, or knows something about, everyone else, they see the problems of the poor, not as theoretical, but as practical and personal.[29]

Unlike David Stockman, Robert Dole could not cut social programs merely on the basis of a theory about the causes of poverty. Like Stockman, Dole abhorred deficits and high interest rates, as do most Kansas Republicans and all farmers. It was easy for him to believe that irresponsible government borrowing could ruin decent productive farmers who needed loans for their businesses. That attitude had been common outside the financial centers since the days of Jefferson and Hamilton. Dole therefore was willing to cut social programs so as to reduce the deficit, but he also wanted bondholders and the military to bear some burden.

In part because no one else wanted it, an interesting trio seized the budget initiative: Howard Baker continually fostered a spirit of unity among Senate Republicans; Robert Dole carefully crafted TEFRA and then defended it skillfully; and Pete Domenici stubbornly insisted that the deficit problem be faced, by draconian measures if necessary. Reagan had no desire to attack his own tax cuts, little more in looking as if he wanted to cut social security benefits. Liberal Democrats were quite willing to oppose the defense buildup or the third-year tax cut, but they wanted Republicans to take the blame for any assault on universal entitlements, such as medicare and social security. House Republicans were looking for someone to follow who would not lead the country further into the depression or push the party off a cliff in November.

When Baker, Dole, Domenici, Hatfield, and Laxalt met with the president on December 18, after Congress had wrapped up the budget for FY82, their confrontation revealed real differences in substance. Dole said that he would not help cut food stamps unless something were done about defense. Laxalt held that unless the FY83 budget pointed credibly toward balance in 1984, Congress would see little reason to endure the pain of further spending cuts. Domenici argued that increased economic activity could in no way make up the revenue lost from the tax cut.[30] The president still wanted to slash social spending, not raise taxes. Senators


and their allies in the administration wanted a big package, including a tax increase.

Thus, senators and their allies turned their efforts toward making the tax increase medicine as palatable as possible for their recalcitrant president. First, they had to demonstrate that the patient was sick. If the FY83 economic forecast showed fast growth, there would be no need to close the deficit. But preliminary projections by monetarists—led by Jerry Jordan, CEA member with primary forecasting responsibility, and leaked on December 7—showed a considerable slowdown in real economic growth. The forecast was resisted by supply-siders. After the leak, Donald Regan insisted that "we don't have an economic forecast we've agreed on yet. I'm the who isn't agreeing. I'm a little more bullish than my conferees."[31] CEA Chairman Weidenbaum, however, won that battle. Responding to his critics, he called the forecast "very optimistic, though not quite as optimistic as the supply-siders would like. If our forecast is dismal, the prevailing private-sector forecasts are the end of the world."[32]

The administration's projections were not too terribly out of line with historical experience.[33] Other forecasts were less optimistic because the Fed's monetary restraint would provide a level of downward pressure on the economy that had not existed in previous recoveries from a recession.[34] Supply-siders, such as Paul Craig Roberts and Norman Ture at the Treasury, argued that if any economic mistake had been made it was not the large deficits but rather the tax cut postponement. When the president asked Weidenbaum what would have happened if the original plan's 10 percent cut in July had been implemented, the CEA chairman replied that it would have boosted output in the third quarter, though with only small, "measurable but not significant," effects overall. Roberts then denounced Weidenbaum for a conclusion "inconsistent with the reasoning upon which Reaganomics is constructed"—a fair enough claim, but relevant only if Reaganomics did not include the monetary freeze. Roberts, who viewed himself as keeper of the flame, soon resigned in frustration.[35] Supply-side influence was steadily diminishing. Donald Regan lessened his own objections to new taxes, so long as they were fairly small and on consumption.

The next step for Reagan's aides was to find nice wrapping paper for the tax package. They found it in "federalism." Reagan had long advocated devolution of federal responsibilities to the states, so that decisions would be made by people at the grassroots. Analysts with very different ideologies than the administration's might be attracted by a plan that made some activities wholly federal and others entirely state activities. The difficulties were in determining which programs might be shifted and financing the resulting transfers. White House policy development


staff had already been working on these issues when the political staff began to search for something positive that the president could say in his State of the Union message—preferably something to divert attention from the deficit.

The transfer of programs—called, say, a "New Federalism" or "New Partnership"—looked as if it might work. "We've got numbers showing the idea favored by margins of 8 or 9 to 1," Newsweek quoted "a Reagan strategist."[36] The senior staff decided to make federalism the centerpiece of the State of the Union address, so Stockman became involved in turning that policy into something that could be put into the budget. There was the opportunity for the deficit cutters.

The package being developed in late December began with a swap in which the states would take full responsibility for AFDC (the main "welfare" program) and food stamps, while the federal government would take over medicaid. In addition, more than forty other programs (sixty-one in the final package) would be transferred to the states. In order to finance these programs, a trust fund would be set up to receive revenues from various federal excise taxes. The trust fund would expire (in the final package, begin to phase out) in four years, by which time the states, presumably, would have decided which transferred obligations they wished to maintain and at what cost.

The whole package was definitely in tune with the president's predilections. He proposed such a transfer in his 1976 campaign, only to get in trouble when President Ford's campaign told New Hampshire voters their state would need an income tax to pay for it. In March 1981 Reagan declared that "I have a dream of my own. I think block grants are only the intermediate step. I dream of the day when the federal government can substitute for those the turning back to local and state governments of the tax sources we ourselves have preempted."[37]

On the budget front, the federalism plan provided two opportunities Stockman could hardly resist. If programs were being transferred to states, then, just as with block grants, Stockman could claim administrative savings that would justify expenditure cuts.

Better yet, the trust fund had to include revenues from taxes that the states could themselves impose, if they wished. Income tax revenues would not do because some states, as Reagan had learned to his chagrin in 1976, do not want an income tax. The fund instead would have to be built from various excises. But the available excises in no way added up to the cost of programs being transferred. Therefore, new excises—temporary, of course—would be needed to finance the fund. The fund and the spending would go off budget because they were "really" state activity. What remained in the budget would be reduced on the revenue side by the lost (smaller) old excises and on the spending side by the


(larger amount of) transferred programs. Then the budget would be both smaller and closer to balance. It was all remarkably neat: a tax increase needed to accomplish the Reagan dream of smaller federal government.[38]

On December 22 and 23 Reagan met with his top aides to discuss the budget and the State of the Union. At the first meeting, he commented, "Well—I understand you're here to talk me into a tax increase." After hearing some details, he remarked, "Well, they're right, you are trying to talk me into a tax increase."[39] Don Regan made the main presentation of the proposal. Normally the leader of antitax forces, Regan disliked taxes on consumption (excises) far less than taxes on income or capital. The president gave a tentative go-ahead to the plan but wanted to see more details. He told reporters, "I don't think that consumption taxes are in direct opposition to the tax program we have instituted."[40]

Most excise taxes involved, such as those on beer, liquor, and cigarettes, had gone many years without change. Increases could be justified, though House Republicans, including Bob Michel, worried about taxing Joe Sixpack to give Daddy Warbucks defense contracts.[41] Senate leaders, however, joined to urge Reagan to support about $45 billion in tax increases over two years.[42]

At a meeting on January 20, Reagan rejected a number of tax increases listed in a decision memo drafted by Richard Darman, but said others were acceptable. Aides leaked the decision to the New York Times, no doubt to commit their troubled leader to his decision. As Washington and Wall Street were learning of the president's support for a package yielding $30 billion in FY84 and half that or less in FY83, however, an uneasy Reagan was meeting with Chamber of Commerce leaders. The Chamber lobbied hard for defense restraint rather than tax increases. In fact, they said, they would sit out the budget fight in Congress if Reagan proposed new taxes. Reagan heard the tax argument more clearly than the defense part. The Chamber's reaction made all of Reagan's own doubts seem politically more reasonable; he had begun to feel isolated as all of his aides ganged up on him. "I just want you to know that I've taken everything you've said into my heart, deep into my heart," he is reported to have replied. Then he told his aides that he had reconsidered. Even with federalism sweeteners, Ronald Reagan simply could not swallow the tax pill. "I haven't been able to sleep because of this. I just can't do it," Reagan told Michael Deaver the next (Friday) morning. "He stood up and was bouncing again," Deaver reported. "He felt better down to his toes. He was comfortable again. You shouldn't try to change him on basic things and it was a mistake for us to try."[43] (Here, as we say in California, was a man in touch with his feelings.)

Thus ended the cleverest of all Stockman's maneuvers. Reagan kept


the federalism initiative in his State of the Union where it got much publicity. The New York Times's headline read, "Reagan Vows to Keep Tax Cuts; Proposes $47 Billion Transfer of Social Programs to States." The revenue hole was plugged by using the windfall-profit tax to earmark revenues for the trust fund for transferred programs. Because only the oil states would be able to replace the windfall tax, the device was of no help to most states or their senators and representatives.

Although it remained a major news story for a number of weeks, the federalism proposal had no obvious constituency. State and local officials, buffeted by recession and unhappy with 1981's block-grant legislation, quickly endorsed the idea of the transfer but remained skeptical about its costs. Rich Williamson of the president's staff, Governor Snelling of Vermont, and others negotiated extensively in attempts to create a plan that the locals could support, but their efforts were doomed to fail. More power and responsibility with less money was a lousy deal, and local politicians rejected it.

National politicians might have liked to dump their fiscal problems on the locals, but, because each of them came from somewhere, they would catch the grief, too. New Federalism seemed irrelevant. "My enthusiasm has to be muted a bit because it doesn't create one new job now," observed minority leader Robert Michel. "The President didn't discuss 1982 or 1983 at all," said Vermont's Senator Stafford. "We've got to live through them first." Senator Hollings, as usual, was the most biting commentator; Reagan, said that senator, had "just shifted around the deck chairs on the Titanic."[44]

If state and federal responsibilities were to be realigned, the process was going to be much slower and less direct. As the federal government was hamstrung by the deficit and while states that raised taxes to balance their budgets in 1982 got extra revenues during the subsequent recovery, states picked up a portion of the programs the feds were unwilling to finance. Indirectly, perhaps inadvertently, Reagan got a small part of what he wanted.[45]

In his State of the Union address, the president reiterated his faith:

Higher taxes would not mean lower deficits. If they did, how would we explain that tax revenues more than doubled just since 1976, yet in that same six-year period we ran the largest series of deficits in our history? …

Raising taxes won't balance the budget. It will encourage more Government spending and less private investment. Raising taxes will slow economic growth, reduce production and destroy future jobs, making it more difficult for those without jobs to find them and more likely that those who now have jobs could lose them.

So I will not ask you to try to balance the budget on the backs of the American taxpayers…. I will stand by my word. Tonight I'm urging the


American people: seize these new opportunities to produce, to save, to invest, and together we'll make this economy a mighty engine of freedom, hope and prosperity again.

Whatever was happening conveniently could be made to justify the president's preferred policies. That this was pure rationalization, albeit heartfelt, is evident. We should be less sure that it is an unusual way to govern. Among other things, to govern means to lead, and to lead means to get others to follow. A leader works to (retrospectively) rationalize what is happening in terms that can support present and future policies. In this way the leader tries to give followers a coherent picture of the world so they will not only feel better but also understand their part in the scheme of things. Coherent, however, does not mean true by definition. Ultimately there must be contact with the world of events, which may prove the president wrong.[46]

Reagan's leadership style made more sense in dealing with the public than with the Congress with whom he shared authority in the divided U.S. political system. Reagan's rationalizations came from a world that Congress did not recognize; thus, he could not lead it. His definition of "uncontrollable" spending illustrated the problem. As he explained it in the State of the Union, "uncontrollability" was not, as understood by the budget community, a prior obligation through contract or law to spend. To Reagan "uncontrollable" meant wasteful.

Contrary to some of the wild charges you may have heard, this Administration has not and will not turn its back on America's elderly or America's poor. Under the new budget, funding for social insurance programs will be more than double the amount spent only six years ago….

But it would be foolish to pretend that these or any programs cannot be made more efficient and economical…. There's only one way to see to it that these programs really help those whom they were designed to help, and that is to bring their spiralling costs under control…. [People are] cheating the system…. Not only the taxpayers are defrauded—the people with real dependency on these programs are deprived of what they need because available resources are going not to the needy but to the greedy. The time has come to control the uncontrollable.

The president used statistics in ways that would sound better to the public than to the pros. Few budget experts in Congress would pay heed to his comparison in current dollars to those of six inflation-prone years before. Other comparisons Reagan made—such as a 16,000 percent growth in food stamps, from the time when it was a small pilot program—were equally flawed. Congress could as well have said that the increase was infinite because once there had been no program at all. Congressional leaders continually fumed about Reagan's reliance on anecdotes


about food-stamp recipients who used the stamps to buy vodka, and similar stories, when he argued for his program in private meetings. Anecdotes serve more to reinforce a believer than to convince a skeptic.

The mutual misunderstanding was inevitable. Only our congressional opposers could understand because they agreed with the president. Reagan saw government as a child to be disciplined—remember the children's allowance theory; uncontrollability was sort of like not being toilet trained. Most members of Congress, by contrast, saw government as themselves. They saw uncontrollable spending not as waste but as their obligations, and they disliked the thought of going back on past promises.

Reagan's plan to gain control by limiting waste had nothing to do with the problem of being locked in by past commitments—save the possibility that, if a majority could agree that some provision of law was undesirable, Congress might remove any legal entitlement under that law. Barring such easily identifiable policy error, Reagan and many of his listeners were talking about very different things even if they used the same words.[47]

Reagan and Senate leaders perceived a budget crisis, but, where Reagan saw the problem as insufficient control of the government, the senators saw insufficient agreement within it. Reagan tried to use the deficit as evidence of the evil of social programs. To those who did not share his premises, however, there was another, more compelling, interpretation of the crisis: spending could be out of control because Reaganomics was not working.

The case against Reaganomics was made just hours before the president gave his State of the Union address, when Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, testifying before the Joint Economic Committee, gave his own version:

I am very concerned about the deficit in the out years because we do obviously want to look forward to recovery and growth in those years…. If the Government is going to stand out there and pre-empt a very large share of the savings flow, you call into question what financial market conditions will look like out there in 1983 and 1984. Anticipation of that situation tends to block the markets today.[48]

The president urged the American people to seize opportunities; Volcker warned against wishful optimism.

Pushed to the wall by events, President Reagan preferred to downplay the deficit. He was reported to have asked why the pessimistic projections had to be calculated at all. Told that the law required these forecasts, the president appealed to Stockman, who confirmed that it was so.[49]

Among the many tensions in Reagan's program, receiving most attention was the one between tight money and promised economic recovery.


Politically, however, the most important tension was between the promise of economic recovery—necessary to maintain political support—and the desire for a general sense of urgency required to make people willing to cut social programs that were, individually at least, popular. Reagan seemingly wanted the politicians to believe both him and Volcker.

The goals of these two powerful officials differed: Where the president wanted to legitimate a reduction in the size of domestic spending, the chairman wanted price stability, at whatever level of spending existed. The center in Congress—Senate Republican leaders such as Dole and Baker and moderate Democrats and Republicans like Leon Panetta and Silvio Conte in the House—believed Volcker's version of the state of the union. But Ronald Reagan, as he reminded Senator Baker, was still president.[50]


Fake Budgets and a Real Tax Hike

By the time the president gave his State of the Union address, his own forecasters were projecting a fiscal year 1982 deficit of $101 billion, rising, if policies were not changed, to $168 billion in FY85. CBO predicted larger deficits, rising more quickly. Ronald Reagan, Paul Volcker, by far the largest part of the political establishment, and, indeed, the public agreed that such deficits were unacceptable. If Carter's $60 billion deficits were bad, much larger deficits must be worse. Yet in trying to get the numbers down for the president's FY83 budget proposal, Stockman had to accept the defense buildup. The president rejected his tax initiatives. Nobody considered touching interest payments. Social security, certainly, was not for Stockman and the president to put on the cutting board. That left Stockman looking for deficit reductions out of the remaining 40 percent of the budget. By CBO's figures, the deficit was half as big as the programs available to cut.[1] Stockman, if 1981's conclusion was any guide, hadn't a prayer of getting much of what he needed out of what was left. The administration's somewhat more optimistic-than-the-norm forecast helped only a little.

Trapped, the budget director reports,

I finally did what the Atlantic story seemed to accuse me of. I out-and-out cooked the books, inventing $15 billion per year of utterly phony cuts in order to get Ronald Reagan's first full budget below the $100 billion deficit level. As on prior occasions, I rationalized this as a holding action. When the President finally came around, we would substitute new revenues for the smoke and mirrors.[2]

Ironically, the smoke and mirrors did not do the job they were supposed to do, but they did a job they were not expected to do. Even with phony cuts, the new budget's deficit of $91.5 billion was too high to be accepted


in Congress. Even with the phony cuts, the real cuts needed to lower the deficit to a level that was still too high were too severe to be accepted during a recession. The FY83 budget, therefore, became the first in a long series to be termed "dead on arrival." The phony numbers were not replaced by a tax increase; instead, even bigger phony numbers were used to sell a tax increase to the president.

A Stillborn Budget

Reagan's FY83 budget was met with a torrent of criticism, tempered mainly by the desire of the president's allies to leave some room for an orderly retreat.[3]

OMB claimed that "current policy with adequate defense" would produce deficits of $147.3 billion in FY83 and $167 billion in FY84. "Adequate defense" was the Weinberger/Stockman deal that Stockman had failed to repeal: real growth of 12.7 percent in 1982, another 13.2 percent increase in 1983 and, over the entire 1981–1987 rebuilding period, an 8.3 percent annual rate of increase. Defense would rise from 24.3 percent of federal outlays in 1981 to 37.2 percent by 1987.[4]

Entitlement savings would "restore the focus of social welfare programs on the people who need them most and … prevent overcompensation of benefits." User fees would be increased for activities that "provide direct services above and beyond those that accrue to the general public." Discretionary and other programs ranged from housing to Amtrak to job training. Tax revisions were supposed to "eliminate unintended tax benefits and remove obsolete incentives." Finally, management initiatives constituted a potpourri of savings, from will-o-the-wisp reductions in "waste, fraud, and abuse" to changes in tax collection and federal pay.[5] The savings projected from all these means are summarized in Table 6.

The administration was proposing social program cuts of more than $58 billion by FY84. AFDC and food stamps would be cut by nearly 20 percent; the employment programs remaining under Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) would be cut in half. Amtrak, Mass Transit, and Elementary and Secondary Education assistance were all to be reduced by 17 to 20 percent. Not all reductions were targeted on the poor; Amtrak was a middle-class program (poor people ride buses); federal retirees are middle-class; and medicare savings were expected to come from hospitals and doctors as well as patients. But the overall effect of these changes did mean considerably reduced benefits for low-income groups.

Stockman's book-cooking occurred in the category called management initiatives, for example, the restraint of federal pay raises to 5 percent—a


Table 6. The Administration's Fiscal Year 1983 Budget Deficit Reduction Proposals (in billions of dollars)







Entitlement savingsa













Cash assistance and nutrition






Federal retirement












Discretionary and other programs






Management initiativesa







Improved tax collection and enforcement






Tax revisions






User fees












Sources : President's Budget for Fiscal Year 1983, pp. 3–8; Congressional Budget Office, An Analysis of the President's Budgetary Proposals for Fiscal Year 1983, February 1982, p. 8. a Includes revenue increases, such as medicare premiums.

level that few if any policy makers had expected to be exceeded, even if the formal comparability process projected larger increases. Estimates of revenues from accelerated leasing of offshore oil sites were even more dubious. Between them, pay and oil lease "savings" totaled $31 billion over three years. Increased enforcement by the IRS was supposed to yield nearly $7 billion.[6]

The package was not, however, purely spending cuts and mirrors. More than 20 percent, including the highly controversial management initiative of withholding (just like on wages) a portion of dividend and interest income, consisted of revenue increases. These proposals—including a new minimum tax on corporations and changes in some accounting procedures—were, the CBO concluded, "heavily weighted toward increases in corporation income taxes, which account for about three-quarters of the net tax increases proposed for the 1983–85 period."[7]

Professionals in the Treasury Office of Tax Policy had begun an effort to repair some of what they considered mistakes—simply bad policy—in ERTA. They were less concerned about deficits than about anomalies such as negative taxation of corporations; on that basis the secretary of the Treasury, otherwise an opponent of tax hikes, agreed with them.


One would hardly have guessed it from the balance in the president's budget alone, but the fact that the Reagan administration, of all things, was attacking business represented a change in the political balance. Business suddenly was on the defensive; consequently its components began trying to stick each other with the burden instead of uniting to fight all change. How does business fight a supposedly probusiness administration?

The reactions of Republican leaders made it evident that the new plan would last no longer than Jimmy Carter's January 1980 draft. House Minority Leader Michel commented, "Most of the members feel that they went along with a precipitous increase in defense spending last year, and that you can't have that two years in a row. With the kind of deficits we're looking at here, and the need to cut expenditures, you just can't leave defense out of there." Iowa's Republican Senator Charles Grassley declared, "I have spent two weeks touring twenty-seven counties in western Iowa, speaking in twenty-seven courthouses, and there wasn't a meeting where concern with the rapid escalation of defense spending didn't come up."[8] "I don't think anybody likes the budget," said Wyoming Senator Malcolm Wallop.[9]

Economists who previously had gone along with Reagan joined the chorus of critics. Former CEA chairman Paul McCracken declared that "there is a hard-core part of the deficit that's going to have to be covered by some additional revenue."[10] And Martin Feldstein, soon to be Reagan's own CEA chairman, thought that "the Administration has put itself in an impossible position…. We may just have a long, flat bottom with very little growth."[11] That he would turn out to be incorrect did not mean he would be uncertain about being correct.

Trying to rally grassroots support for his budget, the president declared that he had a plan but his opponents did not. "To the paid political complainers," he proclaimed in Indianapolis, "let me say as politely as I can, 'Put up or shut up.'"[12] So they did. Most significantly, Senator Hollings proposed to eliminate the July 1982 tax cut, reduce taxes by only 5 percent in 1983, freeze all domestic (including social security) spending at FY82 levels, and increase defense by only 3 percent in real dollars annually. Howard Baker immediately praised Hollings's plan. Republicans such as Slade Gorton of Washington, Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota, and Domenici began drafting possible compromises; Hollings could be used as a lever to move Reagan.[13]

Iowa's Representative Jim Leach, a leading gypsy moth, explained:

The President's budget was dead in its tracks the day it was delivered. Conservatives rejected it on the ground that the deficit was too large, and the liberals on the ground that its priorities were askew.


As a moderate, I agree with both. The feeling here is one of lost confidence. No one elected Ronald Reagan to preside over a recession.[14]

The President Retreats

If the president's budget was not good, Congress would have to make its own. But if it wanted to avoid Stockman's social spending cuts and management initiative fudging, Congress would have to cut defense and raise taxes just to attain President Reagan's figures—never mind reducing his deficit. A top Senate Democratic aide explained the box in which the legislators found themselves and the confinement's likely result:

If you start with wanting to have a balanced budget, anything you do that's real … it's gonna cost you. If you have honest numbers it raises the deficit. You have to cut spending more and raise taxes higher. The politicians' tendency, the whole system pushes them, to do what Stockman did, to jimmy the numbers.

Everything you have to do on the deficit is bad. It's a no-win situation for members of Congress. The president can go on TV and make speeches, but they have to vote. In the deficit era the whole budget process is just an albatross for members.

The incentive to fake it was greatest for those with most responsibility, not those with least.

The House would adopt some of that phony stuff because they had to govern. There was always this tension between the House and Senate [Democrats]. The House felt they had to govern. [Senate Democrats] said, hey, we're the minority, to hell with governing, they drove us out of office by saying they could balance the budget with tax cuts for Christ's sake!

Minorities are going to get beat on a partisan issue like the budget anyway. In neither house could they control either procedure or the votes necessary to make anything happen. No solution could occur without the majorities' support. But if the majority—House Democrats or Senate Republicans—knew what they wanted to do, it almost surely would involve pain for someone, so the minorities might as well let those who made the decision take the blame. Trying to reduce the strains within their own coalitions, the majorities, like Stockman, would be sorely tempted to jimmy either the numbers or the procedure. Because everybody was keeping score by total deficit, once one side cheated the others felt they had to as well just to keep up. Both sides would claim that had happened in 1981.


Musical Chairs

In spite of the incentives to fudge, Congress still had to find some serious deficit reductions—just to match those of Stockman. The centrist budgeters wanted to zap everybody—an equitable "three-legged stool" (social spending, defense, taxes) of deficit reduction. A general deficit-cutting mood may allow politicians to assemble a vast number of small changes that otherwise no one would trouble to put together. Recipients might accept small cuts on the grounds they could be recovered later. In 1982, however, the deficits looked so big and cuts in 1980–1981 had been large enough that any useful cuts on the deficit were sure to be resisted. Thus, everyone would oppose a broad package that hurt everyone.

Budgeters who hoped the public interest in deficit reduction would overcome interests in specific government activities, or in the private activities lost to a tax increase, faced two fundamental difficulties. First, people value what they have more than what they might have. They will object far more strenuously to giving up their benefits than the value of those benefits might suggest.[15] Second, the pain of deficit reductions would be obvious and immediate; the supposed benefits were indirect, slower, and dubious. For both reasons, any group that contributed its fair share to deficit reduction would feel it was contributing too much and resist.

Synoptic rationality—one mind imposing order on a system—might yield a pattern of shared sacrifice. Political rationality, a process of groups bargaining and struggling, was more likely to resemble a game of musical chairs, in which the slowest (weakest) player was left standing. That was what Representative Corman had predicted in 1980, what largely occurred in 1981, and what the Democrats feared would continue: the poor, particularly the working poor, would be least able to save their place in the budget.

But politics is not just every man for himself. No one imposes order, but players do watch, help, and hinder each other. A group's success depends not only on its own resources but also on how others see it, in short, on its enemies. Therefore, Stockman's distinction between weak claims and weak clients is inadequate. If a claim is seen as questionable, opposition to the claim can render its supporters relatively weak (as befell dairymen in 1981). The elderly were strong not only because of their own resources but because they had few enemies; almost nobody opposed their social security claim.

Now, if any claim were really opposed by majorities, it probably would not be there. A program of interest only to a minority is not opposed by everybody else; the majority generally just does not care. Farmers


want farm programs; city dwellers do not object so long as they are getting something they want, say, housing or mass transit subsidies. People object not to other people getting benefits but to somebody getting too much. The normal practice of incremental budgeting, a kind of rolling agreement on resource allocations, marginally altered each year, creates notions of "fair shares." Participants are most concerned with their own shares; they will care about others' shares only if they seem to be getting out of line.

The Reaganauts justified their policies to other players by arguing that defense had fallen below its historic share and most domestic programs had risen above it. Many 1981 cuts were in programs—housing, nutrition, CETA—that had grown recently. Their share had not been ratified as normal through the passage of time. The very process of rearranging in 1981 (and 1980) created a new history. Domestic spending that survived was more obviously accepted. At the same time a new set of beneficiaries—corporations and the military—had done extraordinarily well. Nobody is entirely neutral; everybody has something to which he is committed. Politicians of the center looked for ways to reduce the deficit; meanwhile, the norms of fair shares, which inhibited taking from last year's victims, favored taking from those who had just done well. Moderate Republicans like Dole and Baker felt the working poor had paid enough; even Robert Michel was telling the administration to slow its defense increase.

These Republican budgeters' notions of fair shares, liberal Democrats' ideology, and the tax experts' disgust with the 1981 auction combined to place corporate taxes high on the deficit reduction menu. Defense also could not do as well as the president wished, but there was still broad support for a substantial increase.

Despite the recession, the rejection of social spending stimulus and fear of budget deficits that we saw under Jimmy Carter had been intensified by huge deficit projections. Even the AFL-CIO executive board, at its annual meeting in February, called only for maintaining social programs at existing levels. Labor had long supported defense spending; but the Reagan budgets forced unions to ask if they were willing to build up defense at the expense of social spending. The answer was "no."[16]

Business interests, as an alternative target, asked how much it was worth to build up defense at the expense of a higher deficit. A wide variety of business representatives, including the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Business Roundtable, felt that the military buildup was too rapid in two ways: too expensive and too fast for the defense industry to be capable of supplying new weapons at the rate demanded. Paul Thayer of LTV Corporation,


David Packard of Hewlett-Packard, and Reginald Jones of General Electric were among the leaders of major defense contractors who believed the defense increase could be slowed.[17]

Even if the president's budget were not acceptable, assembling a majority in Congress would still be difficult. At one end were those who wanted to reduce the deficit solely through defense and tax changes, maybe even adding some social spending for sectors of the economy in bad shape (for example, housing). At the other end were those who wanted to reduce the deficit through smaller tax and defense changes and larger social cuts, particularly in universal entitlements. Speaker O'Neill led the defenders of social spending; Senator Domenici led supporters of larger deficit reduction.

The Gang of 17

On February 23, 1982, Domenici announced his own budget proposal: hold defense to a 5 percent real increase for each of the next three years; freeze discretionary spending at FY82 levels for three years, thus allowing erosion through inflation; deny federal pay raises for FY83; and freeze COLAs for benefit programs. In addition, $122 billion in new revenues would be raised, preferably by reducing tax preferences but if necessary by delaying the third-year tax cut. The administration criticized the defense and tax provisions. But the Senate Budget chairman emphasized that "the 1983 budget, like the 1982 budget, fails to respond to the perception that it is inequitable. Congress must redress that perception."[18] Democratic budget leaders Hollings and Jones expressed interest in Domenici's proposal.

The president's staff, particularly Stockman, Darman, and James Baker, tried to get him to cut a deal with Domenici, sending a steady stream of visitors urging compromise toward the Oval Office. But Reagan had a selective ear. Just as in January he had heard the Chamber of Commerce's warnings against tax hikes but not those against defense increases, when Reagan met with economists from his advisory committee he concluded they supported him.[19] The president also insisted that the political situation did not require retreat. "I still think the issues will be ours this year," he told Senate leaders. "What are the Democrats going to run on? Raising taxes? Bargain basement defense when our planes won't fly? Where the hell have they been for the past forty years? They've been in charge and look at the mess they've created. That's why I say, 'Draw sabers and charge.'"[20] But not only liberals might be run through. The Democrats were going to run on the state of the economy, and that was steadily declining. For the first time in forty years, Time


reported, "highly respected business analysts" were "saying out loud the dread word, depression."[21]

As the skies darkened, the administration's economic advisers fell into what Newsweek columnist Jane Bryant Quinn called "profound and angry disagreements [which] are not the sort of thing that engenders confidence."[22] Martin Anderson, believing that much of what the administration could hope to accomplish it already had, departed.[23] Paul Craig Roberts left Treasury, soon to be followed by other supply-siders. As they departed, Reagan's advisers became more united in pursuit of tax increases. Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige was brought in to tell the president that the long-expected surge in capital investment was not on the horizon. The economic advisory board met again, but this time with Donald Regan, who summarized the board's advice in a March 19 memo designed to ensure that the president got the message:

The group as a whole were more gloomy than I have ever seen them.

There was agreement that the greatest barrier to a healthy and sustained recovery was high interest rates…. Most felt that large prospective budget deficits (1983 and beyond) are the primary cause for the high levels of current interest rates, and that the financial markets are convinced that deficits and prospective deficits matter, regardless of the academic debate on the subject.[24]

If all the bad economic news were not enough, Darman prepared a memo indicating that the budget was going nowhere in Congress, and pollster Richard Wirthlin reported a large drop in public support for Reaganomics.

With all this bad news in hand, Reagan met on March 19 with Meese, James Baker, and Mike Deaver. He agreed that it was time to open discussions with the Democrats in search of a budget compromise. By a willingness to talk, the administration would blunt criticism of its intransigence. They knew the Democrats would go along; James Jones had been secretly pressing James Baker to negotiate. Reagan decided that Baker could give up $10 billion in defense and accept up to $15 billion in new taxes beyond what was then in the budget, so long as the Democrats went along with proposed domestic-spending reductions. COLA changes could be accepted as long as the Democrats were induced to share the political blame. Even other members of the administration (save Darman) were not told that Baker had been given a bottom line.[25] Thus, David Gergen, the president's spokesman, was able to insist to reporters that Baker "had only the authority to listen."[26]

On March 22 James Baker requested permission from Tip O'Neill to begin talks with Jones and Rostenkowski. For public relations reasons, the Speaker could not refuse, but he wanted Richard Bolling (whom he


trusted as a fellow liberal) rather than Jones to take the lead. Senate Republicans shot their way into the game on March 30. Howard Baker told Domenici to go ahead with marking up a budget resolution (that wasn't likely to be the president's) and the committee voted 16 to 1 to abandon OMB's economic assumptions and use CBO's instead. That forced Reagan and O'Neill to include the senators and established the principle of using CBO numbers for the economy. Using CBO's more pessimistic assumptions made deficit reduction more difficult, but market confidence would not be won with an OMB forecast that almost no one believed.

The negotiators became known as the "Gang of Seventeen." James Baker, Donald Regan, David Stockman, Richard Darman, and congressional liaison Kenneth M. Duberstein represented the president. Senate Republicans were Dole, Domenici, and Laxalt, with Hollings and Long for the Democrats. From the House came Robert Michel, Delbert Latta, Barber Conable, and Minority Whip Trent Lott for the Republicans, and Jones, Rostenkowski, and Bolling for the Democrats.

Designing a budget compromise proceeded on two tracks. At one level was the big picture—the balance among various types of spending cuts and revenue increases. Only the seventeen negotiators could bargain on the big picture, and, of them, only Jim Baker, representing the president, and Dick Bolling, representing the Speaker, could set a deal. Forming the second track were the concrete proposals that would add up to broad categories of deficit reduction. Here policy and political consequences had to be estimated by staff, serving their principals. Judging the consequences of various deficit-reduction measures required considering other values; therefore, the values of staff and the principals most directly concerned came into play.

On the second track, a number of players saw a chance to fix social security under the cover of the Gang's secret deliberations. Knowing he eventually was going to get stuck with the hot potato, Rostenkowski would gladly have gotten rid of it in early 1982. Jones, as a budget balancer and Ways and Means member, had double incentive to find measures that, by solving social security's imminent funding shortfall, would also reduce the deficit. Stockman wanted savings wherever he could get them; Jim Baker wanted the political problem to go away. Staff, therefore, very quietly drew up proposals to deal with the giant entitlement. The tax players also largely agreed on the need for new revenues, so the Senate Finance and Treasury tax staffs developed a series of revenue proposals. These tended to reflect their own judgments that ERTA had gone too far with business giveaways and the political attractiveness of "compliance" measures as opposed to rate increases.[27]

After floating a series of proposals, on April 6 the administration put


together a package dubbed the "Baker plan," which claimed $450 billion in deficit reductions over three years. Revenues would be raised by $115 billion; defense increases pared by $66 billion. Domestic spending would be cut by $145 billion, including limiting and delaying COLAs.[28] The balance, 30 percent of the total, consisted of management initiatives and savings on debt service projected to result from all the other savings. The ratio of revenues to other deficit reductions was roughly $1 to $3.

The Baker plan exempted SSI, aid to the disabled poor, from COLA cuts. The administration's negotiators emphasized they were allowing $22 billion more for discretionary programs and $16 billion more for medical, nutritional, and public assistance than in their original budget. Many of these compromises involved leaving a popular program at the FY82 budget level. Because inflation and recession meant the needs had increased, Bolling was not so thrilled by such compromise. Because the proposals helped answer Senate Republicans' notions of fairness, however, Bolling worried that Jones too might be tempted by the offer.

"Frankly," Domenici suggested on April 8, "I believe that those of us who have been negotiating could reach an agreement tomorrow."[29] He may have spoken accurately of the majority of "Gang-sters," a fairly conservative group who valued deficit reduction above all. Domenici, Dole, Baker, Stockman, Jones, and Hollings might have been able to agree. Representing the Speaker and the Speaker's supporters, Bolling could not. The Baker plan still involved both big social cuts and a big defense buildup during a recession. "I knew we couldn't concede the things that they wanted us to concede for one vital reason," Bolling later explained. "We couldn't deliver them." Domenici also did not speak for many House Republicans. "How many people in the House of Representatives," asked Trent Lott, "would vote to cut Social Security in an election year? Maybe seventeen, and most of those retiring."[30] Domenici was in a sense wishing away deep conflicts of ideology and political interest. But he was also putting pressure on Reagan and O'Neill, trying to create the impression that a deal was there for them to make, if only they would be reasonable.

The president and the Speaker used the same tactics on each other, each asserting that he could not be moved but playing up hints (emerging from the negotiations) that the other might begin to give in. Reagan trumpeted a hard line on the tax cut; O'Neill a hard one on social security.[31]

Behind the public maneuvering was a residue of private distrust. Bolling and O'Neill felt they were being asked to clean up Reagan's deficit mess, which they had fought to prevent. Now Bolling was dealing with Stockman, who had lied before and, as far as Bolling knew, could lie again.


Despite this distrust, neither side wanted the blame for failure. There was also some movement. The menus of revenue initiatives produced by the Joint Committee on Taxation (April 6) and by Dole (April 7) included such good things for Democrats as a minimum corporate tax, modification of tax leasing, a cap on depreciation tax breaks in the out-years, and a 4 percent income tax surcharge. By April 13 some negotiators, but not Bolling, were reported to be converging on a package that would have put a 4 percent surcharge on taxable incomes over $35,000, added a tax on crude oil, repealed income tax deductions for most consumer interest, capped COLAs at 4 percent in 1983, and accepted a number of further social cuts. Hoping to lock Reagan into a deal, Howard Baker all but endorsed the surtax, warning that without quick agreement the Senate would go off on its own.[32]

The Speaker of the House was not enthusiastic. Saving discretionary programs by cutting social security was not Tip O'Neill's idea of a compromise. Both his staff and Rostenkowski's, however, did like the idea of doing something about social security—perhaps a revenue solution? Reagan, meanwhile, kept up his public campaign for accepting the original presidential budget priorities. On April 16 he told a group of newspaper editors and broadcasters,

The one sure way to reduce projected deficits, bring down interest rates and still encourage growth is to reduce government's share of the gross national product [that is, cut spending]…. We hear so many judgments about compassion—who has it and who hasn't…. Where was the compassion in those bankrupt spending policies that brought the pain of high inflation and interest rates to so many people? Where is the compassion now in raising tax rates again on our people, making it even harder for them to work and compete?[33]

These are not the words of a leader about to retreat very far; they are the words of a leader trying to give his followers acceptable arguments against the "fairness" issue.

The negotiators were unable to overcome the differences. Bolling said he would have to consult with the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee before going any further. The president's men began to look for ways to turn any breakdown of negotiations to their political advantage. Reagan told a news conference that he would "go the extra mile" to win an agreement, to which the Speaker scoffed that "President Reagan proved he was willing to walk a mile—for a camera."[34] These, too, were not the words of a leader planning a retreat.

The president announced that he would be willing to go to the Capitol to meet with the Speaker on Wednesday, April 28. The Democrats could hardly refuse but insisted that the talks essentially were stalemated.[35]


When the Speaker and the president met, the essential differences between the two proposals involved the three fiscal years from 1983–1985



Bolling proposed $145 billion in new revenues over FY83–85: the administration proposed $105 billion.


House Democrats were scaling back military outlays by $42 billion; the administration by $28 billion. The budget authority differences projected to a larger outlay difference later.


House Democrats proposed $23 billion in domestic discretionary cuts; the administration wanted $35 billion.


House Democrats would cut the targeted entitlements (e.g., food stamps, medicaid) by $12 billion; the administration wanted $25 billion.


Bolling would accept limiting the COLAs to 5 percent in both 1983 and 1984, an estimated $16 billion savings. The administration, no longer proposing a delay, wanted a 4 percent limit from 1982 through 1984, saving $26 billion.


House Democrats wanted to fix social security by raising $19 billion in new revenues, with the COLA savings, and by dedicating $24 billion in old revenue from taxes on alcohol and tobacco to the social security trust fund. Their most likely source for new revenue, according to our interviews, was a tax on some portion of social security benefits received by higher-income elderly. The Speaker and Robert Ball, former commissioner of the Social Security Administration and the Democrats' expert on the issue, long had favored such taxes. The administration would have matched the Democrats' $60 billion package with its COLA caps, a smaller amount of new revenue, benefit cuts to be suggested by the Greenspan commission, and delaying the COLA date by three months beginning in 1982 (about $17 billion).

The two sides roughly agreed on some big, but dubious, numbers: $54 billion from management initiatives, including pay restraint, and $105 billion from lower interest payments. Of the latter, $64 billion would result from borrowing less because of the other deficit reductions. Less credibly, the markets were supposed to be so happy about deficit reduction that expectations would change and rates would come down enough to reduce debt service by $41 billion.[36]

In the terms that would later become matters of great recrimination, counting the more concrete social security proposals and the dubious numbers as spending reductions, the Democratic package was about three to two in spending cuts to revenue increases; the administration's plan was closer to five to two. If we exclude management initiatives and interest, however, and group defense cuts with tax hikes as changes the


administration did not want, while it wanted to cut social spending, the difference in priorities is even more clear. The Democratic package was about 80 percent tax increases and defense cuts; the administration's proposal was about 60 percent, and the differences would grow in the out-years.

What hope there had been quickly evaporated in a fiery confrontation of strongly opposed principals. The president and the Speaker clashed bitterly over the fairness of the Reagan program. "Your budget was unfair. It had no equity," O'Neill accused. "I've heard all that crap," snapped the president. "You had a depression when I took over."[37] "Each saw the other as the archetypal representative of the opposing ideology," a participant recalled.

Howard Baker proposed a compromise in which the 1983 tax cut and 1983 COLAs would each be delayed by three months, but that foundered on social security politics. According to the New York Times,

The President wanted the group to know that he had never approved of cuts in the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits. "He said he had nothing to do with the COLAS," the Speaker said. "You fellows are going to offer the COLA to me. I said, 'I offer you nothing.'" "I told the President in no uncertain terms that they were trying to set us up," Mr. O'Neill said. When Republicans insisted that reductions in the cost-of-living adjustment had not come from them, Mr. O'Neill said, "They're not coming from us—I'll take them off the table."[38]

O'Neill didn't want the blame for a proposal he didn't even approve. Reagan felt he had already given a lot from his original budget; at the least, the president and his party did not need the blame for the package's most unpopular part. Bolling and the Speaker, meanwhile, did not want to cut more from domestic spending than they had offered. Liberals felt those programs had taken too big a hit in 1981; they wanted program increases in response to the recession. The fireworks between the principals merely widened an already unbridgeable gap.

So the blame shedding began. OMB's summary of the differences, reported in the New York Times, excluded all but the COLA limit aspects of the social security dispute—an obfuscation to which neither side objected!

Trying to show that the Democrats were being unreasonable, in a televised address on April 29 the president reported on the spending side: "Our original cuts total $101 billion … but they were rejected, believe me. Our own representatives from the Congress proposed compromising at $60 billion. Their counterparts from the Democratic side of the aisle proposed $35 [billion]." He, too, didn't mention social security COLAs. He added that "I swallowed hard and volunteered to split the


difference between our $60 and their $35, and settle for $48. And that was rejected. The meeting was over."[39] Implicitly, although criticizing Democratic unreasonableness, Reagan also acknowledged that his own party had torpedoed his original budget plan. The president's rueful "they were rejected, believe me" reveals that the opposition to his original cuts was overwhelming.

Bolling summed up the Democrats' case succinctly:

He believes his program is working. And he believes that he hasn't hurt anybody. But the fact of the matter is that that is not what's been happening…. His program didn't work and his new budget was not acceptable, not only to many Democrats but also to many Republicans. The revolt against the President was in the Republican Senate.[40]

Why, then, one might ask, should the Democrats dig Reagan out by sacrificing social programs to the deficit?

Passing a Budget: The Senate

The Reagan budget was dead; the bipartisan budget was stillborn; now it was Domenici's turn. The day after the Reagan-O'Neill meeting, SBC met and began drafting. Senator Moynihan proposed a vote on the president's budget so as to embarrass Reagan before his television address that evening. Domenici prevented that vote, but not until he insisted that "we don't have to be subtle. The President's budget will not pass."[41]

Although Reagan used his speech to appeal for support, the response, as in September, was minimal. Kent Hance reported that he had received only fifteen calls compared to one thousand after one of Reagan's 1981 appeals. "People want to support the President," said Louisiana's John Breaux, "but the enthusiasm has worn off, except for the hard core."[42] There was little reason for representatives to fear presidential wrath for interring his budget.

The SBC chairman went to the White House on Monday, May 3, to discuss his plans. Then, while admitting that congressional leaders and President Reagan showed "much concern and consternation" about his plan, Domenici announced his proposal to the press: a three-year tax increase of $125 billion, a one-year social security benefit freeze, and many other spending reductions. The SBC chairman emphasized that "this is not a Republican plan, this is not a White House plan, this is my plan." Domenici was going to force everyone else to react to him; he had taken the position that Reagan had always claimed to (but no longer did) occupy: the man with a plan, challenging others to articulate alternatives. Slade Gorton of Washington and Steven


Symms of Idaho voiced their support, and William Armstrong, leader of SBC's conservatives, announced that the plan's "sense of rough justice" won his support.[43]

SBC met to begin its drafting on Tuesday, May 4; Hollings moved for a vote on the Reagan budget. Domenici agreed and, sending a message to the president, began the voting with his "no." The senators laughed and cheered the 20 to 0 wipeout.[44] So much for any Reagan hope that the Gang's breakdown would resurrect the original White House budget.

Hollings then proposed his own alternative, including a one-year social security COLA freeze followed by two years of COLAs limited to 3 percent less than actual inflation. In his draft, Hollings (like Domenici) allowed increases in food stamps, veterans' benefits, and supplemental security income. Unlike Domenici, SBC's ranking Democrat would not have frozen domestic discretionary spending; and Hollings's $36 billion three-year defense slowdown was larger than that in Domenici's plan. Hollings also proposed a $198 billion, three-year tax hike, including a halving of the 1983 tax cut.

By going out front on social security, against the advice of his party leaders, Democrat Hollings let Republicans hope that they might not have to take full blame for pension changes. Furthermore, Hollings's proposal provided an alternative that, from Reagan's perspective, looked far worse than the Domenici plan. Robert Kasten (R-Wis.) proposed only a $73 billion three-year revenue increase, guaranteeing the third-year tax cut, but that proposal was rejected 17 to 4. The Kasten vote made it obvious that the committee meant business on taxes. Domenici's plan began to seem both more necessary and more attractive to the president than it had been a few days earlier.[45]

That morning Reagan had met with James Baker and Stockman to devise new budget numbers. When SBC recessed late that afternoon, Stockman and Baker met with Domenici. They agreed that the tax hike would be reduced to $95 billion in return for presidential leadership on social security. The freeze was abandoned. Instead, the budget would require social security savings, to be produced by the Greenspan commission, of $6 billion in FY83 and $17 billion in both FY84 and FY85. Republicans hoped to present the cuts, not as balancing the budget on the backs of the elderly, but as securing the pensions by instigating needed reforms. Domenici took the package to a caucus of SBC Republicans and won their support. The president pledged his support in a phone call; and the compromise passed the committee on an 11 to 9, party-line vote.

Reagan strongly endorsed the Senate Budget Committee plan the next


day. The tax hike was less than he had been prepared to accept in the Gang-of-17 negotiations; defense spending would be more; social spending cuts would be substantial. When asked about social security, he suggested that the savings might come from "an entire restructuring of the program," a line that revealed the president's old distrust of the program and, fortunately for him, received little publicity. Unfortunately for Reagan, the proposal's raw numbers were trouble enough. Democrats began blasting the social security provisions even before they emerged from committee on the night of May 5. "This is a time bomb designed to raid and loot the Social Security system," declared Michigan's Senator Riegle, "but they want to wait until after the election."[46] "The President proposes to mortgage the future of the elderly to keep alive the folly of his Kemp-Roth tax cut," declared Minority Leader Byrd.[47]

Vulnerable Republicans, including Senators Lowell Weicker, John Chafee, David Durenberger, and John Heinz, all up for reelection in 1982, ran for cover. Out at the grassroots, Republicans already were in a near-panic about the political impact of the recession. Governors Robert Ray of Iowa, William Milliken of Michigan, and Albert Quie of Minnesota had declared that they would not run for reelection in what promised to be a very bad year for their party. Now, the New York Times reported, Republican pollster Robert M. Teeter "said he had been getting calls from worried Republican candidates all day. He said he had been told that Democrats were so overjoyed at the political opportunity they had been handed that 'they can't believe what they're hearing.' He commented sourly, 'Me neither.'"[48]

Republican House leaders declared against the compromise on May 11. Robert Michel insisted that members who had to run for reelection could not be saddled with the social security cuts; the matter would have to wait for the report of the Greenspan commission. Trent Lott added, "Social Security is out, Period. No plug, no honorable mention."[49] Back in the Senate that same day, Daniel Moynihan proposed an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would repudiate the social security cuts. Howard Baker won the votes to defeat Moynihan only by promising an amendment that would put the Senate on record as opposing any but "corrective" actions "to save the system."[50] So died the social security part of the SBC budget. Newsweek (in "The Third Rail of Politics—touch it and you're dead") quoted a White House aide, "All Republicans should be required to get a lobotomy before they can say the words 'social' or 'security' again."[51]

Senate Republicans dumped the social security provisions on May 18. They also added back $3 billion in domestic spending so as to aid the reelection prospects of nervous Frostbelt Republicans. As adjusted, the


package was fairly similar to that of the Gang of 17. Despite some grumblings, these changes were enough to unite the party. The united Republicans took the resolution to the floor, beat back numerous Democratic amendments, and passed it, 49 to 43, on May 21.[52]

Passing a Budget: The House

After one nasty screwup, the dominant party in the Senate had passed a budget resolution. The House had no dominant party; its action was therefore almost a parody of everything bad that has ever been said about Congress. Disorganization? Posturing? Legislation by exhaustion? The House provided these—and more. About all that can be said of the House's activities is that they were very (small "d") democratic. Everybody had a say; although agreement may have been achieved only through fatigue and creative accounting (that fooled no one), the result did represent opinion on the House floor.

"There are three ways you can pass a budget," said Representative Timothy E. Wirth of Colorado. "One is to get all the Democrats. A second is to get all the Republicans and the weevils. And a third is to find a compromise right in the middle."[53] Or maybe there was no way. No one expected to unite all the Democrats. The 1981 Republican/weevil coalition was in shambles because of gypsy moth dismay about priorities and boll weevil distaste for deficits; and the ranks of centrist Republicans and Democrats—Frostbelt moderates, some Sunbelt conservatives and moderate loyalists, maybe a few of the responsible conservatives—were unlikely to yield a majority. Nonetheless, Wirth and his "Gang of Five" partners (Panetta, Mineta, Gephardt, Aspin) went to work with gypsy moths to design a centrist budget. James Jones and Delbert Latta, meanwhile, worked the partisan sides of the budget track.

On Thursday, May 6, ten gypsy moths told James Baker that it would be "politically stupid" and "indefensible" for them to vote for the Senate budget plan. They released their own alternative, which included greater reductions in the defense buildup, higher social spending, and no foolishness on social security. On Friday, Republicans Jim Jeffords (Vt.), Jim Leach (Iowa), and Tom Tauke (Iowa), along with the centrist Democrat Gang of Five, signed a bipartisan budget plan. "I would like to work with my own party," proclaimed Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.). "But we have been pushing and pushing and we haven't got any response. I think we need to work with the Democrats."[54] This moderate proposal, known as the Aspin budget after its Wisconsin Democrat coauthor, would test the proposition that there was a hidden moderate majority.

On May 13 the House Budget Committee, in a party-line vote (Phil Gramm abstained), adopted a plan that claimed to meet the Senate's


deficit reduction targets but relied on substantially higher tax ($147 billion versus $102.3 billion in the final Senate version) and defense savings ($47 billion versus $22 billion) to achieve that deficit target. This was the Jones budget. Essentially, it matched the Democratic Gang-of-17 proposal but left out social security and cut defense more.[55]

Robert Michel established a nineteen-member group (including five boll weevils and four gypsy moths) to try to recreate the Republicans' 1981 coalition. "It was like being in a snake pit," reported Silvio Conte, both a party leader and a gypsy moth. "The boll weevils gave some. We gave some."[56] On May 19 Conte and others joined GOP leaders in announcing support for what would be called the Latta budget, with totals similar to the Senate's plan. But, by further cutting domestic discretionary programs ($41.3 billion versus $27 billion) and through matching the other House plans for larger "management initiative" savings, as "iffy" as could be imagined, Latta projected a lower deficit.

David Obey and the Black Caucus each proposed more liberal budgets; Republicans John Rousselot and William Dannemeyer of California proposed a plan that had massive social spending cuts so as to achieve balance. California Democrat George Miller produced a "pay-as-you-go" plan: spending would be frozen, and then all increases, including those in defense, would be funded by new taxes. This was a neat variation on Miller's theme that the military "spenders" created deficits (see his comments on the 1980 reconciliation).

Having tried to limit choices in 1981, House leaders now maximized them. One Democratic leader recalls, "There was … a good deal of frustration in the House; everybody thought they could come up with something politically and economically acceptable. I figured, let them see how easy it was." In addition to looking at seven comprehensive budgets, they proposed a rule that would allow extensive amendments to the three main proposals. First, the House would vote on the Miller, Obey, Black Caucus, and Rousselot plans, in that order. Then amendments could be offered, applicable to any of the three main alternatives (Aspin, Jones, and Latta). All three would be debated simultaneously. Then Latta, Aspin, and Jones would be voted on in sequence. The last one to get a majority would win. It was, Richard Bolling admitted, a "very complicated" and "unique" rule. But the Republicans found it fair, and there was no rule fight.[57]

"Does Anyone Have a Budget?" Time asked, and then described how it appeared to outsiders:

Seven competing budgets. Flocks of nuisance amendments proposed for the sole reason of forcing opponents to cast embarrassing "no" votes….

The scene in the House, which begins voting on the budget this week,


was fairly close to legislative anarchy…. House Republican leaders produced a budget that looks very much like the Senate document but, somehow, projects $15 billion less spending. How did they accomplish this feat? An aide to Senate Republican chiefs had a simple answer: "They lie." Retorted an aide to the House GOP leaders, "Our numbers are no phonier than anyone else's."[58]

On May 24 the Miller, Obey, and Black Caucus plans were defeated; each received almost no Republican support. The next day the Rousselot plan lost by 242 to 182, receiving 47 Democratic votes but losing by 53 Republican defections, almost all Frostbelt moderates. The Rousselot vote may be the best measure of the ideological thrust within the House to balance the budget by drastically cutting spending: the cutters were outnumbered.

During the votes on the three major resolutions, Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) offered a crucial amendment. She proposed to increase medicare and decrease defense spending in all three budget plans. When her amendment was offered to the Latta plan, about 60 conservative Republicans chose it as an opportunity to express unhappiness with that plan and to remind Robert Michel that he could not take them for granted. Accordingly, they voted "present." Their moderate colleagues, however, seeing that Oakar had a chance to win, voted for her amendment and were joined by diehard liberals and moderate loyalists. This victory by the Democratic/Frostbelt coalition left the Latta plan with lower defense numbers (by $4.5 billion in FY83) than conservatives could accept yet with larger social cuts than moderates could stomach. It was widely argued to have ensured defeat of the Latta plan, which lost 235 to 192 as 20 Republicans defected.[59]

In spite of pleas by Democratic and Republican leaders that the House pass something—anything—all three plans were defeated. The Aspin, supposedly centrist, budget turned out to have no real base, losing 109 to 129 among Democrats and gaining only 29 Republicans. Jones's plan also was beaten decisively, 253 to 171.[60] Republicans were unanimous against Jones because the rule gave moderates a chance both to oppose Latta and to vote for the Aspin alternative; so the gypsy moths' discontent did not help the Democrats.[61]

The leaders had one trick left. Following seven budget defeats, the original HBC plan (without the amendments added during floor debate) came up for a vote. "We come to the moment of decision," declared the Speaker. "The hour is late. Most Americans have retired for the evening. Tomorrow morning, when they wake up, I want them to know that Congress did its job and passed a budget."[62] The members weren't interested in what anybody thought at breakfast, at least not on the Budget


Committee's terms, and voted down the eighth plan 265 to 159. Surveying the wreckage, Les Aspin commented, "Right now, you haven't got the votes out there to pass the Lord's Prayer."[63]

President Reagan denounced the budget process as "the most irresponsible, Mickey Mouse arrangement that any governmental body ever practiced."[64] For some reason he had not felt that way when he prevailed under the same rules in 1981; ridicule, moreover, would not produce a budget.

Politicians were beginning to wonder why they should go through so much pain to get down to a $100 billion dollar deficit. But people don't necessarily get to choose their problems. Or, if they have chosen them, it becomes hard to avoid them when there is an audience. The audience remained, not so much the voters as the markets. Something had to be done about interest rates; and so, in the logic of the time, something had to be done about the deficit.[65] The next event reflected the seemingly contradictory notions that unless something were done about the budget, disaster portended;[66] because budget resolutions didn't mean much anyway, however, any resolution would do. Basically, the Democratic leadership chose to force adopting a budget even if the Republicans were to win.

"I think the Speaker felt," one leader recalls, "that this was a Republican game, don't muddy it up, and we would straighten it out through the election." To clarify the choice, both parties moved away from the center. "At least we'll go with the true philosophy of our party," said Tip O'Neill. "To pass something," said Delbert Latta for the other party, "we have to go farther to the right."[67] Democratic leaders estimated that a more liberal proposal might attract only about 180 votes, but they still added a few billion dollars in social spending to the Jones budget.[68] Bowing to the lesson of the Oakar amendment, Republicans cut medicare by less, but they financed the change by reducing medicaid and nutrition programs.

"Will we do what the medieval bleeders did," Jim Wright responded, "and, if the patient doesn't respond to the first bleeding, bleed him some more?"[69] Yet while the Republicans were leaning on their members to vote for the Latta proposal, Wright told reporters, "Last week the official party line vote was to vote against Latta. This week, the official party line vote was to vote for Jones. After the Jones vote, we told everyone to vote his conscience."[70] First the Jones and then the Latta budgets would be considered as amendments to the original Reagan budget. If both failed, Congress would have to vote on the original Reagan budget, a prospect few Republicans wished to contemplate. When Jones failed, therefore, Republicans had an extra incentive to vote for Latta.


Jones lost 202 to 225; 39 Democratic defectors made the difference. Then Latta passed, 221 to 208, supported by 46 Democrats and opposed by 15 Republicans. On the final vote to pass the budget as amended by the Latta substitute, Republicans again won 221 to 207, as symbolic votes against the deficit by "opposers" were offset by new defections among moderate-to-conservative Democrats.[71]

Happy to end the long fight, the representatives cheered the Latta budget's passage on the House floor. Hawaii Democrat Cecil Heftel explained that the budget passed "not because it was a good budget or fair budget or an accurate budget. But because it was the only budget."[72]

Off went the plan to a conference dominated by three days of private meetings among Republicans. At the end of these meetings, conferees had pretty much accepted the House plans on revenue (slightly smaller increases) and defense (slightly larger reduction from Reagan's plan). The most objectionable of the Latta plan's entitlement cuts, for example, medicaid and food stamps, were sharply reduced, back to the numbers in the Senate plan. Discretionary spending choices tended toward the House position.

Conferees also moved to reduce the appearance of deficits, changing economic assumptions and accepting all the House's management initiatives. By conjuring up these reduced deficits, it became possible to predict lower interest payments. The Democrats scoffed at the result. Hollings declared, "We know it's out of whole cloth." And Domenici came back, "It has about as much realism as any budget we've produced." Fatigue leads to cynicism.[73]

Table 7 summarizes the conference report that squeaked through the two houses; now Congress had to make it come true. The congressional task was not as big as the totals suggested. Congress could not legislate the management and interest savings. Federal pay, as in 1981, was only being restrained relative to an unrealistic baseline. The defense and nondefense discretionary savings would begin in the FY83 appropriations, but they also depended on action for FY84 and FY85. With virtually no disagreement, the 1981 experiment in controlling appropriations through cutting discretionary program authorizations had been abandoned in early 1982. Republican leaders made clear they would not again do that to the authorizing committees.[74] Reconciliation instructions, therefore, covered only the entitlement and revenue changes, a third of the total savings.

A $100 billion tax hike would be difficult enough. Bob Dole and his allies, however, had spent most of the year putting a package together. The budget resolution would provide the argument that brought the president into their camp.


Table 7. The "Three-for-One" Package: Fiscal Year 1983 Budget Resolution for Three-Year (FY83–85) Deficit Reductions as Estimated by the Senate Budget Committee


Billions of $


As percentage of total

Revenues (including user fees)




Defense (except pay and pensions)




Nondefense discretionary

Entitlements (including COLAs)

Other program reductions (includes some user fee spending offsets)






Federal pay raises




Management savings

Net interest






(lower rates)



(lower borrowing)



Net non-revenue








Source: Senate Budget Committee estimates, June 23, 1982 (typescript).

The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA)

The 1982 tax hike was devised and pushed through by politicians and staff who believed it was good policy and who, in the case of Republican leaders, singled out their own constituents to be the victims.[75] Until the 1986 tax reform, we could hardly ask for a better demonstration of the limits of interest group power. Business lobbyists had collected a string of victories in the late 1970s, and in 1981 Democrats, led by Jones, had joined Republicans to encourage investment through favorable tax provisions. Suddenly, in 1982, the momentum reversed. The palaces of K Street, where lobbyists and lawyers dwell, glistened no less and the coffers of corporate PACs bulged as tightly; but their influence had waned. Convinced of the need to do something about the deficit, politicians believed that "something" should include new revenues. Businesses themselves were screaming about the deficit and interest rates, so they could not deny the problem. But when revenues were needed, in the words of one tax lobbyist, "The main individual [tax] preferences are health, homes, and retirement. And on the business side there is the investment tax credit and accelerated depreciation…. Where do you go


for the money?" Politicians, particularly Republicans, may not have wanted to raise business taxes, but it would certainly be better than either abandoning the third year of 5-10-10 or going after homeowners. The question changed from How do we encourage productivity? to Whose taxes shall we raise? Then business lobbyists went from occupying the high ground to being up to their necks in alligators.

Corporate tax breaks, as loopholes for undeserving fat cats, always had been subject to criticism; publicity about the auction of 1981, along with some provisions of the 1981 act—its negative rates for some profitable corporations, especially "Safe Harbor Leasing"—only intensified that image. Under "Safe Harbor" provisions, businesses that could not use deductions for investments because of low income or no income against which to offset the expense essentially were selling their tax breaks to profitable corporations. Whatever the argument for subsidizing the nonprofitable corporation, it was hard to explain why the purchasing corporation should be able to rake off a portion of the tax advantage in the process. A business lobbyist described safe harbor leasing as "a PR fiasco." Some Republicans, particularly Barber Conable, thought leasing worked. But on February 19 Senator Dole went so far as to unilaterally announce its demise: "However desirable many tax theorists find the current … leasing rules in the abstract, they are indefensible in a year in which the federal deficit will reach nearly $200 billion…. Corporations entering into leasing deals after today do so at their own risk."[76] He was partly grandstanding, but the finance chairman knew the fans were on that side.

The January budget had proposed a minimum tax on corporations and, far more potentially controversial, a tax withholding on interest and dividends. While Reagan disbelieved in the corporate tax, his Treasury did not, and the politics clearly favored the tax. Interest and dividend withholding was far more risky. A Carter withholding proposal had been riddled with grapeshot in 1980. Treasury staff saw it as a compliance issue: if everybody who should pay taxes did, rates would not have to be so high. Regan and Reagan agreed.

With tax increases looming, business groups had to choose between two strategies: oppose all change, or try to shift costs to somebody else. Charls Walker, business lobbyist and past chairman of Reagan's tax policy transition team, remarked that "there is the potential for goring all sorts of oxen…. People are scared to death."[77] He took the second tack, testifying to Ways and Means that the third year of the individual tax cut might be postponed or that tax breaks for oil and natural gas could be reduced.[78] The Business Roundtable suggested higher excises and user fees. Others, particularly the Chamber of Commerce, opposed all tax increases, reflecting in part its devout supply-sider leaders. Yet the


Chamber's split from the Roundtable also reflected their different constituencies; the Chamber's small(er) business members had different concerns than the Roundtable's CEOs of major corporations.

Every threatened tax break had defenders. Airlines and aircraft makers claimed they depended on Safe Harbor Leasing.[79] The administration's minimum tax proposal was said to fall most heavily on banking and oil industries. Normally, groups are able to protect themselves by claiming unfairness: "Why me? Why am I worse than anyone else?" In 1982, however, there was an answer: "We have to get somebody, and you've done well lately. It's your turn." The chief counsel and staff director of Senate Finance, Robert Lighthizer, expressed that basic principle: "How can you do anything about a $150 billion deficit if you can't assure that major corporations pay a 15 per cent tax?" He asked, "What can you do if you can't do that? Go out and nail some more students, or make some more cuts in food stamps?"[80] Staff—on both tax committees and in the Treasury—felt policy was out of control, and they were determined to correct it. "We didn't know what was coming until it was in the report," a business lobbyist ruefully reported.

By filling in the blanks of something like $100 billion of revenue increases over three years, Treasury and Finance staffs were serving their leaders, particularly Bob Dole. If business interests were left off, everything would be contested, and Dole could not allow that.[81] An administration member of the Gang of 17 recalls that "there was not much difference of opinion. [The troika,] Stockman, and Treasury all were on board because we had come up with $750 billion in revenues [lost in ERTA] when the original target had been more like $600 billion."

The Tax Policy office was very active. "We were providing him [Dole] all sorts of help," a participant said. "It was an ideal situation to us, we could make very good changes in the tax law and he would take the heat."

Determined to proceed with business tax increases, Dole let the administration know that, if it backed down, it might get something it wanted far less. "We're willing to raise revenues, and we believe we can protect the third year" of the individual tax cut, the senator reported telling Reagan. "But if people in the Administration are dealing off different tax provisions that affect business and others, they will put more pressure on the third year."[82]

In late May Dole presented a list of thirty-four proposals to Finance Committee Republicans and asked which each found unsupportable. Each senator's staff aide then began meeting with Chief Counsel Lighthizer. The aides agreed on about $68.5 billion in tax increases that, at least to them, were noncontroversial. Other provisions, such as the minimum tax, an energy tax, and tax leasing (the latter being as strongly


defended by Minnesota's David Durenberger as it was disliked by Chairman Dole) were considered contentious. As of mid-June, Senate Republicans were still divided over the last $30 billion.[83]

On June 30, the last day before the start of the second phase of Reagan's three-year tax cut, Senate Finance Republicans tentatively approved a package that met their budget target.[84] During markup, however, four of them Jumped ship on interest withholding. Dole hinted that total repeal of tax leasing might be needed to make up the resulting $12 billion revenue loss. After more bargaining, the defectors backed down, and withholding was adopted on a party-line vote. In order to appease banks and other interest or dividend-paying institutions, some smaller tax breaks were added to the package.

Within Senate Finance, Russell Long proposed to defer the third year of the tax cut on higher incomes (raising $37 billion over three years); he lost 7 to 12. On a party-line vote on July 2, the committee adopted a plan that would raise $98.5 billion over three years; $17.5 billion would come from measures to increase taxpayer compliance, such as collecting taxes from restaurant owners on waiters' tip income. Withholding 10 percent of interest and dividend payments was expected to yield $11.6 billion. The twenty-five provisions ranged in comprehensibility from repeal of the modified coinsurance tax loophole (your guess as to what that was is as good as ours; but, anyway, its estimated worth was $5.2 billion) to doubling the excise tax on cigarettes ($4.8 billion).[85]

The Finance package was brought to the floor as an amendment to a minor House-passed revenue measure (H.R. 4961), so as to circumvent the constitutional requirement that revenue bills originate in the House. It then was considered as Finance's reconciliation bill, including $17 billion in spending savings. Senator Bradley proposed a Democratic alternative that would limit the third-year tax cut for persons earning above $46,400 per year and repeal it (ostensibly, delay it until the budget was balanced) for persons with incomes greater than $78,700. "It's the last stand on the third year," Dole predicted; and indeed, on a nearly party-line vote, Bradley was defeated.

Dole beat off, or compromised on, a series of smaller challenges. Kasten and Hollings tried to delete the withholding provision, but Dole won (48 to 49) after exempting lower incomes, with help from liberals Ted Kennedy, Alan Cranston, and Chris Dodd. A Democratic proposal to limit medicare cuts was headed off by a smaller adjustment, proposed by David Durenberger. After several attempts by tobacco state senators to defeat or reduce the cigarette tax increase, the Senate agreed to make the increase expire after three years. Once again games were based on the three-year budget horizon! At 4:30 a.m., July 23, the Finance Committee


reconciliation tax bill, H. R. 4961, passed 50 to 47 on a nearly party-line vote.

Back in the House, Rostenkowski came out of the Gang of 17 with a rough sense of revenue-raising targets. Ways and Means staff worked with Rostenkowski and Conable to put together a package, which Rosty then brought to a caucus of committee Democrats. But the discussion did not go well:

At our meeting some members said, "Why are we taking the lead, Danny?" And some disagreed on the details, going after oil particularly. So the meeting broke up and only three members, Rosty, Shannon and Brodhead, were really for it. Brodhead thought it was the best reform package in years. Eighteen were against…. The meeting broke up with a consensus there would be no bill. And a few of us sat down … and agreed to get some bill about anything to the Senate, to let them do it and then we'll do our part in conference.

Seeing that the Senate would be able to piggyback on H. R. 4961, Ways and Means' staff consulted with Dole's people during his markup. Then, on July 28, the committee voted to go straight to conference on the Senate's amendments to the originally rather innocuous H. R. 4961. Agreeing that it was the only way to get a bill and hoping (wrongly) they would have some influence in the conference, Conable and three other Republicans joined the committee majority. That afternoon on the House floor, Rostenkowski admitted "deep personal misgivings" about going to conference without House consideration of the issues. Nevertheless, he argued that "any attempt to craft a tax-increase bill in the House would lead to political chaos, severely reducing the chances of its passage." Conservative John Rousselot challenged the Ways and Means maneuver; but his motion to table lost 229 to 169. With the support of forty-five Republicans, mostly "responsible conservatives," the House agreed to send H. R. 4961 to conference.

Rousselot predicted that the president would be lucky to get one hundred Republicans to support the tax increase when it reached the House floor. The Democrats liked the idea of making the president fight for a tax increase, especially since they did not trust his support. They were glad to see Reagan pushed out front by his own troops. "I want there to be presidential leadership, and sheer pain, as there was sheer pleasure last year," said Richard Gephardt.[86]

Reagan's allies were badly divided; even his long-time aides, Lyn Nofziger and Martin Anderson, publicly opposed the tax increase and had to be reined in by White House staff. After Senate action, however, Reagan heartily supported the TEFRA tax increase. He did so in part


because many components were described to him as mere matters of ensuring tax code compliance or correcting mistakes in the tax code.[87] More important, however, Reagan thought he had gotten a very good deal. As he continually declared in appealing for Republican support for the tax hike, for every dollar in new revenues, the budget plan provided three dollars in outlay savings.

Table 9 shows where Reagan got that idea: revenues were, in fact, only 26 percent of the total package. Stockman pointed that out to Reagan as part of the argument for TEFRA. It also shows what was wrong with Reagan's idea: the 1982 reconciliation would be three to one revenues ; even counting all the spending savings, Congress could itself deliver, including defense, a balance more like 1 to 1. Most outlay savings were items Congress could not, and had not promised to, deliver: for example, lower interest payments.

In essence, the funny numbers, meant to impress voters and maybe markets, fooled the president. They also fooled Donald Regan and Ed Meese.[88] When eventually someone (Stockman blames Kemp) told Reagan that Congress did not give him any three-for-one, the president felt betrayed. Believing the administration had been "snookered," "screwed," "hornswoggled" on TEFRA, Reagan, Regan, and Meese became very suspicious of other compromises.

To Stockman, Baker, Darman, and congressional leaders, this sense of betrayal was ludicrous; no one ever said Congress would pass three-for-one. The resolution was clear enough about that. But when Stockman perceived, during the fight to pass TEFRA, that Reagan might have missed the point, there wasn't much the budget director could do. If he tried to clear up the confusion, Reagan might have changed his mind on TEFRA itself. Instead, Stockman let it slide and hoped for the best. He could not have anticipated the endless recriminations that would follow, outlasting him in the administration. In a letter to Reagan on January 16, 1984, for example, Senator Dole had to write:

The most frequently voiced objections to packaging new spending cuts and revenue increases together is that Congress would enact the new taxes but renege on the spending cuts. These critics cite as evidence the alleged failure of Congress in 1982 to deliver any of the promised three dollars in spending cuts for each dollar of tax increase. I respectfully submit, Mr. President, that you were not "taken in" by this budget plan.

Nevertheless the president decided he had been taken in, a perception that would explain the later Gramm-Rudman Act. Actually Reagan was not all wrong: while the deal never was three-for-one, he did not get all the social cuts he might reasonably have expected. On the other hand, Reagan and Weinberger tried to renege on the defense cuts!


In August 1982, however, Reagan still believed. In Billings, Montana, on August 11, the president opened his campaign for the new package of tax hikes. "The bottom line is this," he told his audience, "would you rather reduce deficits and interest rates by raising revenue from those who are not now paying their fair share? Or would you rather accept larger budget deficits, higher interest rates, and higher unemployment?" The president had convinced himself that the Senate plan was reform of unfair "loopholes." "In order to get $280 billion in reduced outlays over the next three years," he declared, "we had to agree to the added revenues of $99 billion. The ratio of reduced revenues to outlays is three to one."[89]

The Republican National Committee taped two spots with the president asking voters to urge their representatives to support the plan. The spots carefully avoided describing the package as a tax increase, but the message to wavering Republicans—that the president wholeheartedly favored the package—had to be clear. On Monday night, August 15, Reagan would urge support for the plan on national television.

As Reagan campaigned for TEFRA, there was one minor complication: the bill did not exist. Conferees still had to settle many issues, and the administration lost on virtually all of them.

It was a very strange conference, beginning with an about-face by the administration on the tax side. "We went up to a meeting with Dole, Darman, Regan, Baker, Chapoton and so on," a House source recalled. "We thought it would be a pep-talk meeting, and found they wanted changes in the out-year (depreciation) and other business-type things." A coalition of business groups had finally managed, as a lobbyist put it, "to draft an alternative that was revenue neutral…. Dole wouldn't introduce our plan, and Jim Baker didn't approve it until a few days before the conference." At the last moment, Treasury supported these "more satisfactory schedules for business," as the lobbyists put it.

It was too late; TEFRA's business cuts were loosened only slightly. It was great stuff for Democrats: political jujitsu in which the Republicans became victims of their own momentum. "We kept receding to the Senate positions," a Democrat said, "which they kept denouncing in the Senate." The bargaining situation—Reagan out front, the only formal proposal from the Senate, the administration needing Democratic votes—gave Rostenkowski the advantage.

If the administration did badly on taxes, it did worse on spending. Ways and Means had taken a vote on spending provisions on July 15 but had bypassed the floor with its approval to go straight to conference. The conferees protected AFDC and restored some medicaid cut in 1981. On AFDC, a key staffer estimated, "We were up $400 million; they were down $1.8 billion." After they "hung on to the nth degree," Ways and


Means held the cuts to "maybe $100 million." They cut a similarly good deal on unemployment compensation. Savings were produced by coupling an extension of benefits to a small increase in the employer portion of the tax.

Conferees cut medicare even more than, but not in the same way as, the administration desired. The administration wanted to cut medicare costs by reducing benefits and raising patient costs, which, by market logic, would reduce "unnecessary consumption" of medical services. Congress agreed that medicare costs were soaring out of control, largely because under the third-party payment system neither providers nor consumers had to worry about costs. The committees also wanted to do something about the problem before the medicare trust fund went broke, expected around 1990. Reconciliation made for a great cover. Ways and Means and Finance, however, hit the providers, not the patients; instead of allowing prices to hurt customers, the conferees moved to regulate prices.

The conference agreement set temporary limits on physicians' fees and hospital prices. Then it ordered HHS to develop a procedure for "prospective" payments to hospitals and nursing homes by which costs for patients would be anticipated (based, in the end, on the diagnosis) and payments would be held down to a set amount for each diagnosis.[90] TEFRA's cost restraints hit medical providers so hard that, when HHS completed its study, the new prospective payment system, though quite complex and regulatory, looked better to the hospitals than the alternative. Therefore, when the new system was enacted as part of the 1983 social security rescue package, hospitals did not resist strongly. Ironically, Ronald Reagan, who opposed medicare from its inception, was dragged into endorsing greater government regulation of the medical profession in the course of his own campaign against the welfare state.

On almost all categories of spending, results were closer to the House than the Senate numbers for an important reason. Republicans could hold only half their own troops in the House for a tax hike and knew it; therefore, there was no hope of a GOP/boll weevil coalition. Only the Speaker could deliver the necessary votes. If spending had not been packaged with revenue increases, Senate leaders might have fought harder (we cannot know; Dole certainly lacked enthusiasm for AFDC cuts). As it stood, however, they couldn't even protest much. "If I had screamed too hard on the [spending] compromises," a TEFRA advocate explained, "that would have given Gingrich and Kemp and the other guys the smoking gun to get rid of TEFRA. They could tell Reagan he was [getting shafted]." TEFRA was big, bigger than it seemed; it made no sense to complain about "$5 to $7 billion out of three years" when the tax might be "$300 billion over six." Executive branch aides and the


senators kept quiet so as to keep Reagan on board, while conceding to the Democrats to keep them on board. This time, packaging favored the Democrats.

Fearful of deficits and browbeaten by a heavy dose of jawboning from the White House, even most business groups went along. Although their proposals were rejected at the end, the Roundtable helped rally business interests behind Reagan who was, after all, "their" president. Donald Regan declared that business had to understand that new revenues must come from corporations and the wealthy: "Because of last year's tax and budget cuts, a mistaken impression is abroad that this administration favors only the rich. Business must understand we have to correct this mistaken impression."[91]

Liberals did not quite believe their good fortune. "Liberals should be behind this bill one-hundredfold," proclaimed the national director of the Americans for Democratic Action. "The bill includes in it reforms we have sought for years." "From a tax standpoint, we closed a lot more loopholes than we opened," said Ways and Means Democrat Fortney (Pete) Stark of California.[92] The Democrats, too, felt the bill was redistributive, away from the rich and toward the middle class.

On Monday Reagan went on television to explain his support for the tax increase. Once again he presented himself as surrounded by rumors, out to set things straight. The tax increase was not "the largest tax increase in history" as some would claim; but it might be the largest tax reform in history. The tax package had to be passed to "end the bickering here in the capital" and allow the Reagan program and economic recovery to proceed.[93] Now, he could hope, his third year of tax cuts was safe.

This speech, like the others since September 1981, provoked no upwelling of support. Yet, reading it closely, we suspect the speech served another purpose: its rhetoric continually sought to reassure people that Ronald Reagan hadn't changed, that a few great principles informed his policy, and that the public should pay no attention to confusing reports from Washington that suggested otherwise. Reagan's speeches succeeded in maintaining his bond with supporters in the face of criticism and bad news that had undermined his predecessors.

In response, Democrats declared they had not supported Reagan's extreme tax cuts in 1982 but would now support him in rectifying some of his own worst excesses. Their language was restrained, emphasizing bipartisanship. The most important result of the speeches was not the weak public response; the speeches helped to cement the temporary alliance between House leadership and the president.

H.R. 4961 finally emerged from conference on Tuesday, August 17, after a series of last-minute deals.[94] In the two days before the vote, both


the president and House leadership worked their troops furiously. In spite of the leaders' efforts, both parties were badly split. It was a big tax increase close to an election. In the five districts where, due to reapportionment, incumbent Democrats were running against incumbent Republicans, all ten candidates opposed the bill. The GOP could not even use its regular whip structure because the whips were split. Kemp, Rousselot, and other strongly antitax Republicans led the opposition. The Chamber of Commerce,[95] National Federation of Independent Businesses, and Farm Bureau fought against TEFRA; aside from labor, there was no real countervailing force back in the districts.

The key vote came on an attempt to revise the closed rule for considering the conference report. As Trent Lott put it, "If we try opening this package of tax and spending cuts at this point, and then succeed in knocking just one provision out on a point of order or a vote, then we risk losing the whole package for good."[96] The rule held, 220 to 210, with mainstream and diehard liberal Democrats joining responsible conservatives in a rather unusual alliance. Republican leaders held only 75 of their troops on the rule vote, but, on the final vote on the conference report, 103 Republicans supported the president. As Democratic support for the plan declined between the two votes, the result was a narrow 226 to 207 victory for TEFRA, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. After the House vote, Senate action was anticlimactic, although the margin was narrow. With crucial support from nine Democrats led by Ted Kennedy, Robert Dole and Ronald Reagan triumphed, 52 to 47.[97]

The deficit mattered. Without that threat, such substantial action was unlikely. Morality mattered. How the deficit was reduced was determined by shared notions of equity. Politics mattered; it looked awful, but it worked well.

As the tax-hike debate reached its peak, Wall Street took off on a rousing rally.


Economics as Moral Theory:
Volckernomics, Reaganomics, and the Balanced Budget Amendment

Long awaited, yet unexpected, the market boom finally came as Ronald Reagan was fighting for a tax increase. Business seemingly celebrated as its taxes were raised. What did it all mean?

Throughout the battle of the budget the participants responded to or invoked notions of how their actions would affect the economy. We have emphasized that a budget is many things, and fiscal policy is but one. Yet even those most skeptical of government intervention in the economy, including Ronald Reagan, judge economic performance to be the key criterion of political performance. Are you better off today than you were four years ago? was not merely Reagan's tactic for attacking Jimmy Carter; according to most students of politics, it is the most important question in any election. Encouraging the nation's productive forces—whether by directing them or by leaving them alone—is a primary responsibility of our elected officials.

Consensus on that responsibility gives economists their power, yet consensus on the economy per se is more rare. Throughout this narrative we have traced disjunctions among aspects of economic policy making. Not only did schools of economic thought proceed from different premises and advocate different solutions, but also, as times changed, individuals (and groups) made radically inconsistent arguments. The administration's arguments for a tax increase were but one example of such inconsistency; the turn in 1980 of such eminent figures as Paul Volcker to the "logic" of expectations was another.

Much about the economy was simply unknown or unknowable. To this day we cannot say what caused the decline of productivity; if anything, the puzzle has increased with time.[1] Action often reflected no one's intent. The battles of 1981 produced a policy that was neither supply-side (too little stimulus, early) nor Keynesian (too much stimulus,


late). As we saw in 1980, our governors had a hard enough time figuring out what the economy was doing at the time when they were looking at—never mind knowing—either what would happen next or what to do about it.

Trying to govern by one set of theories, politicians were forced to compromise with others who held different theories; the result was policy that fit no theory. Hardly anyone anticipated what actually happened to the economy, but everyone at the time interpreted it with overconfident vigor.

Because the stakes were so high and arguments about economic effect so pervasive, we must try to explain what was happening in the economy. We cannot settle these issues. Even if we were right, we could not prove it, and, right or not, many might disagree. The absence of correct answers is part of our point; we must look for meaning outside the terms used in much economic debate. Rather we will ask about the ways of life that participants believed in and hoped to preserve; about the groups that they identified with and wanted to favor; and about the primary terms of economic thought (labor, capital) that are part of not only economic analysis but the economy as power relationships. We must appreciate how much—for economists, business interests, and politicians—economic philosophy is another form of political philosophy. The October House debate on budget balance is the most obvious case of melding political and economic philosophy.

First we ask, What was driving the economy? It is time to focus on not budget politics but Volckernomics. What was the difference, we ask, between Volckernomics and Reaganomics? We move, then, from observed events in the stock market to their possible causes: a banking crisis, the actions of the Federal Reserve, and the beliefs and acts of Ronald Reagan and his supporters. Finally, we look at the debate over budget balance in which the principles of constitutional design mix with group interest.

The Stock Market

By August 12, 1982, the Dow Jones average of 30 industrial stocks had slid from 822 to 777. On the 13th it climbed to 788, on the 16th to 792. On Tuesday, August 17, the market suddenly leaped upward by a then-all-time record of 38.81 points (with a near-record 93 million shares traded). The next morning, the rally continued with 37 million shares traded in one hour as the Dow soared by another 18 points.

Wednesday and Thursday were roller-coaster days: a sharp rally followed by profit taking and an all-time record 133 million shares traded


on Wednesday; a rally, fall (over rumors about banks and Mexican debt), and finally a nine-point gain on Thursday. On Friday, after the tax bill passed, the Dow leaped ahead by nearly thirty-one points.[2]

The stock market frenzy continued during the following week, with 550 million shares—a daily average of 17 million more than the previous record—traded. The rally continued until it finally leveled off in April 1983, with the Dow hovering around 1200.[3]

What did it all mean, and who deserved the credit? With the November election approaching, would the stock market rally support what Time called a "strong new hope that Reaganomics might work to pull the American economy out of stagnation"?[4] As a matter of logic, both questions depended on whether whatever caused the stock market upswing was part of Reaganomics. As a matter of electoral politics, Reaganomics might be seen as whatever happened during the Reagan administration, whether Reagan was responsible or not. However, logic and politics were not the same.

Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan declared, "The market forces are beginning to believe our resolve in redirecting the economy. Perhaps it took something like the tax bill to convince people that we're serious about fiscal responsibility." By his account, there was no difference between the tax bill and Reaganomics, which was finally paying its expected dividends. Others thought that the administration was a late convert to "fiscal responsibility."[5] If Reaganomics represented supply-side economics, then the tax bill reversed policy, as Jack Kemp claimed, and the market rally could not be credited to the original policy's wisdom. A third possibility was that the rally had less to do with the tax bill, whether Reaganomics or not, than with monetary policy and hence "Volckernomics."

We lean toward the third position, but we can never know what the markets are thinking because markets do not think. The overall trend of a market results from uncoordinated individual hunches and guesses. Individuals consider not only the economy but also many other things: How will companies perform financially, and thus what will be the dividend or capital appreciation on investment? What else could people do with their money, comparing the return on equities to, say, Treasury bills? And, hardest of all, what will other actors do? Consequently, political interpretations of stock market behavior are more important for their effects than for their validity.

Conceivably, the stock market rallied at this time because the economy was such a disaster. Why were investors suddenly willing to pay more for stocks (and therefore, in percentage terms, receive smaller dividends) than they had before? The most obvious explanation in August 1982 was an expected decline in return on other investments due to a drop


in interest rates. Lower interest rates might mean greater corporate profitability. Stocks and old bonds would become more attractive as alternatives to new bonds and savings of various sorts.

Let us go back to Wall Street the week the rally began and reconsider the reporting of Time's enthusiastic correspondents.

The first hint that something extraordinary was about to unfold came on Monday morning. The First Boston investment firm announced that Albert Wojnilower, its chief economist, had revised his economic forecast. After warning for months that the huge federal budget deficit could send interest rates shooting back up again, Wojnilower now admitted that the cost of money would probably continue to decline over the next year. On Tuesday morning, rumors whirled through Wall Street that Henry Kaufman, chief economist of the Salomon Bros. investment house, had also changed his mind on interest rates. Word that these two gurus, known on the Street as Dr. Doom and Dr. Gloom, had reversed themselves electrified the stock exchange…. Because few portfolio managers were willing to risk missing a major market rally, a buying panic quickly built up.[6]

Newsweek told a similar story. Lower interest rates could mean that recovery and higher profits were on the way. But Kaufman forecast lower rates because the economy was so sluggish that demand for credit would be weak. Kaufman was right. Capital investment, the engine of recovery according to supply-side doctrine, did not begin to increase until summer 1983. Businesses were hunkered down to wait out the recession. Throughout the first half of 1982, as businesses had scaled back on capital investment, analysts had looked to the second installment of the income tax cut to spur consumer demand and economic recovery.[7] As the magic date approached, however, no surges occurred in either demand or supply.[8] The demand side of high interest rates was diminishing. The governors of the Federal Reserve joined Dr. Doom and Dr. Gloom in observing that trend. They, however, saw a particular kind of gloom and doom in the trends—a debt problem far worse than the federal deficit. As the demand for money slowed, the Fed decided to increase the supply.

The Federal Reserve and the Banks

Chairman Volcker and his colleagues faced an extremely delicate choice. Over two years, beginning in October 1979, the Board had reduced inflation through an unprecedented squeeze on the money supply. On the few occasions, when the monetary aggregate figures had suggested some loosening of the grip, commentators had raised the alarm of runaway inflation. The rest of the time, the Federal Reserve had to listen


to screams of pain from the interest-sensitive sectors of the economy. Throughout this period, the Fed's governors felt their only choice was to squeeze hard because any loosening might drive up interest rates as panicky investors predicted worse inflation. By July 1982, M-1, the basic measure of the money supply, had risen barely 4 percent in fifteen months; unemployment and bankruptcies were climbing steadily toward heights last reached in the Great Depression. Yet neither investors and business interests nor the public at large seemed to believe, in spite of the real reduction in inflation, that prices would stay under control. In June, for example, a Business Week poll of 600 top corporate executives found that 53 percent expected inflation to take flight again within a year.[9] If the Fed loosened its grip on the money supply, inflation fears might keep interest rates high, no recovery would follow, and the hard-won progress against inflation would be lost. But if the Fed did not loosen, interest rates certainly would remain high. Talk about Representative McDade's no money for anything.

Not only was the American economy choking, but the recession was equally bad in Europe, with prospects there even bleaker. High American interest rates and worldwide political worries strengthened the dollar dramatically against foreign currencies. To prevent an even greater outflow of their capital to the safe, high-interest United States, European finance ministers raised their own interest rates, and in turn those rates crippled European economies. As unemployment rose in Europe and America, consumer demand accordingly stagnated or fell. The world economy entered a classic downward spiral.

If Europe and America were in trouble, the struggling nations of the second (communist) and third worlds were, literally, on the verge of bankruptcy. The strong dollar meant that these nations had to exchange more of their products for fewer dollars, reducing both American inflation and Mexican, Polish, and Brazilian incomes. Dollars could barely be earned and only dearly borrowed. Yet dollars were needed, for the nations of the world owed hundreds of billions of dollars to American and European banks.

We have been talking throughout this book about the Federal Reserve as an institution for economic management. Fundamentally, however, the Fed is a bank—a rather big and unusual one (serving only other banks, not individuals or businesses) but a bank nonetheless. Its bedrock responsibility is not economic growth but the banking system's health—on the well-grounded assumption that a sick banking system will infect the whole economy. By a banking system, we do not mean simply a place for people to put money and have it safe. Rather, we mean a system for creating money and credit, for ensuring the flow of that very peculiar commodity that is the means of payment for all other commodities.


In June 1982, the Board's governors saw the economy doing rather worse than was tolerable. The Board also saw many foreign loans on the banks' balance sheets. Perhaps some of those nations would default. If they did, the debtors might take the banking system with them into bankruptcy.

The massive international debt crisis that reached public attention in late summer 1982 had been building since 1971, the year when OPEC discovered its strength in negotiations with the big oil companies. In October 1973, OPEC raised oil prices unilaterally, and the price held. A few months later, the price more than doubled again. The greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world had begun. The world's rich nations suddenly were paying tribute to less-developed ones. Those envious of the West might have been happy for a moment; economic writer George Goodman (aka "Adam Smith"), with nice irony, described

a feeling of jubilation in all those countries of Asia and Africa. What an upset! Ragheads, 66; Giants, O! … So much for the imperialist exploiters who wanted us to be a nation of busboys!

And then somebody—maybe the financial people … would say, "But now we have to pay four times as much for the oil, and we have no oil. Where do we get the money?"[10]

More or less fortunately, there was yet another problem: What on earth would OPEC countries, particularly the sparsely populated Arab states, do with the money? They put it in banks, and the banks lent it all over the world. Many loans were less than wise, but this recycling of the OPEC surplus through the banking system prevented the oil price hike from generating a massive worldwide slump. The cycle repeated after 1979.

In late 1981, Mexico owed various banks $56.9 billion, of which half was due in 1982. Brazil owed $52.7 billion, a third due that year. Venezuela, Argentina, South Korea, and Poland all owed more than $15 billion.[11] To make matters worse, throughout this period, the banks—competing with each other for the international loan business—had expanded their loan/reserve ratios. Thus, the banks were at great risk if defaults occurred.

In all the strife about the budget and the economy little had been heard about third world loans. But to bankers and policy makers of the international financial system the problem loomed ever larger and more menacing. A big default might start a process in which the flow of money and credit that is the lifeblood of the world's economy collapsed like a row of dominoes. Warning signs abounded: a large government securities trading company went under in May and a medium-sized bank in


July; the entire savings and loan industry was in trouble. As August approached, Mexico neared default.[12]

A number of lines of defense against a chain of defaults spread from some weak link across the banking system. First, debtors and creditors negotiated to reschedule the debt; that defense was crumbling as creditors demanded higher interest rates for greater risks. Next came the International Monetary Fund (IMF); third parties could guarantee loans, or offer them, in return for policy changes that would make repayment by the debtor nation more credible. But IMF conditions for loans might be too tough for recipient governments to accept and still survive politically while IMF reserves themselves were limited.

Within each country the national central banks themselves would be "lenders of last resort" to their respective private banks. If a major American bank was about to collapse, the Federal Reserve might provide loans to tide the bank over the crisis or allow some other, profitable bank to assume the liabilities (and assets) of the collapsing institution, thereby protecting its creditors. The Bundesbank in Germany, the Bank of England, and other central banks would try to do the same in their own financial systems.

What if none of that were enough? What if the doomsday scenario occurred, and the dollars could not be found to stem the chain reaction of collapse? Well, only one organization in the world could invent the necessary dollars. The dollar is the world's currency; the system of money and credit for the world, not just the United States, ultimately is the responsibility of America's central bank. The Federal Reserve is the lender of last resort for the world.

In 1981, at the height of concern with hyperinflation, George Goodman reported a conversation with his understandably anonymous "banker mentor." "Where will the Federal Reserve get the money?" Goodman asked. "It will print it," the banker replied. But that, said Goodman, is superinflation, too many dollars chasing goods. Perhaps, his banker replied, but there was no choice:

The System must survive. A burst of liquidity at the right time can save the System and buy time to solve the problems. Otherwise we will have a massive depression, and the Western nations will battle one another for the scraps, as they did in the Depression…. We hope that a burst of liquidity, properly handled, would restore confidence, not destroy it…. Remember, there is nowhere else to go.[13]

This is melodrama but melodrama with a point. In July of 1982, the crisis was uncomfortably close; the Fed's governors knew it. They knew one more thing: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The time for a "burst of liquidity" was before panic set in.


Yet the Fed's governors worried that if they loosened, those with money to lend, attending to monetarist theory rather than deep recession reality, might fear future inflation and keep interest rates high. The Fed, therefore, had to loosen while maintaining its reputation for tightness. As Volcker told the story,[14] the board merely decided to let monetary growth move from the low end to the high end of the year's target range. In fact, M-1 overshot its 1982 target by three points as the Fed jammed the monetary accelerator through the first half of 1983. The money shortage was met by a large infusion of cash. Simultaneously the Board embarked on a publicity campaign, reiterating both its determination to prevent inflation and its contention that inflation was finally under control. Board governors gave rare public interviews. Volcker stoutly resisted congressional pressure to "loosen up" while doing exactly that. Expectations were confronted with rhetoric.

"In just one week," Chase Manhattan Bank economist Richard Benson asserted, "they [the Federal Reserve] did a coupon pass [bought Treasury notes on the open market], a bill pass [bought T-bills] and a system repo [borrowed securities from a bank or broker for cash] five days running."[15] In August, both before and during the stock market rally, the Fed cut the discount rate three more times, down to 10 percent. Short-term interest rates fell, the stock market boomed, but long-term rates remained sticky; the economy did not recover. The Mexican crisis was postponed but not resolved.

Monetarist logic about the relation between the money supply and prices was being invalidated, as Volcker argued, by an unprecedented, since the depression, reduction in the velocity of money. Instead of spending and circulating it, people and businesses were holding on to cash, anticipating even harder times. Keynes had a name for this: he called it a "liquidity trap," in which nervous people clung to liquid assets; that unwillingness to spend or invest made their fears for the economy self-fulfilling. It was the exact opposite of the burst in velocity needed to make the Rosy Scenario come true. Volcker's version was understated: because standard relationships "over time between the monetary and credit aggregates and the variables we really care about—output, employment and prices … did not hold in 1982," M-1 targets had to be overshot because "that policy, in practical effect, would otherwise have been appreciably more restrictive than intended in setting the targets."[16]

On October 5, 1982, the Federal Open Market Committee met again. In spite of the market rally, economic conditions remained parlous. Describing conditions in the most gloomy of terms, the chairman led his colleagues in deciding to loosen further, formally abandoning monetarist money-targeting procedures adopted in October 1979. In an unusual


step meant to reassure market participants that the Fed wanted interest rates down, Volcker publicly announced the change on October 9.[17]

Would beliefs about the catastrophic effects of deficits overcome the real effects of greater supply and slack demand for money? No; nominal interest rates did come down. The prime interest rate, having slid three points in July and August, declined three more points, to 10.5 percent in February. Other short-term interest rates dropped accordingly. Long-term rates, more influenced by expectations and less by the immediate money supply, fell more slowly. But they, too, dropped three points by November. As money expanded and interest rates fell, prices were steady. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose only 2 percent from July 1982 through June 1983. Real interest rates thus were extremely high and in some ways crippling. Yet for investors who had to put their money somewhere, lower nominal rates made stocks more attractive.

We can say now that in August 1982 the Fed, for the time being, had won its battle against inflation; a 13 percent increase in M-1 over the next year did not reignite the fire. Volcker's gamble worked. For quite a while the economy remained in miserable shape; unemployment rose into double digits in September and stayed there until June 1983. In spring 1983, however, a robust recovery began.[18]

We have come a long way from the stock market, but we can now draw a few conclusions. The decline of interest rates, the need of large institutions to invest somewhere, and the dynamics of a buying surge among a small group of actors[19] —rather than optimism about the economy or confidence in Reaganomics—fueled the market rally. Even if investors expected further inflation, declining short-term interest rates justified moving funds into stocks. Businessmen were not confident, as long-term rates showed, that the battle against inflation had been won. Business investment did not lead the nation out of the recession. But the economy had passed a watershed; whether or not anyone believed it, the recession had killed inflation.


Businesses were too scared to raise prices; labor was too scared to demand higher wages. Slumps in demand and increases in production depressed the prices of crucial commodities, especially agricultural and petroleum products. High mortgage costs terminated the boom in housing prices. Across the economy, people did not demand higher payments because they were afraid of losing the sale or their job.

That, at its heart, was Volckernomics. In spite of the fanfare that accompanied the Fed's alleged conversion to monetarism on October 6,


1979—when the Board announced it would focus on monetary targets and ignore the interest rate results—that decision had been mostly public relations. But the Board had a majority that believed inflation had become so debilitating that it had to be wrung out of the economy even at a very high price. Monetarism provided a convenient rationale for letting interest rates rise, thereby decreasing demand and investment.

The money supply, however, was never the real target of Fed action.[20] A target is what you try to hit; you score your effort by some measure on the target. In that sense there were a number of targets. Perhaps the most important was the rate of increase in prices, but the rate of increase in wages ran a close second. Volcker and company in essence agreed with Carter's economists who had sought to reduce core inflation by restraining wages. Consider these excerpts from the Federal Reserve's report to Congress on monetary policy at the beginning of 1983:

In many ways the slowing of inflation this past year has reflected the pervasive influence of the recession on product and labor markets…. The wage-price interactions that served to perpetuate inflation through the 1970s appear to have lost much of their momentum. Workers generally are agreeing to smaller pay increase[s] than in earlier years, and in some sectors in which long-term wage agreements are prevalent, the settlements concluded in 1982 will help ensure diminished labor cost pressures in coming years. Lower labor costs are relieving pressures on prices, and, in turn, an improved price performance is reducing expectations of inflation and thus leading to a further slowing of labor costs.[21]

Lower wages were good news. This is not to say Board members were "capitalists" out to crush "workers." Smaller wage hikes did not necessarily hurt the interests of workers—if prices rose more slowly. In fact, wages went up faster than prices in 1982 for the first time since 1978—if you were working.

Yet the recession fundamentally changed business and labor behavior, to labor's disadvantage. Previous recessions had been viewed by most participants as normal, if unpleasant, swings of the business cycle. When the recession was over, things would return to an acceptable level; companies interested in the long term would try to maintain a stable labor force, minimizing the dislocations caused by large layoffs. Output would fall more quickly than employment, so productivity statistics would decline.

For two reasons, 1982 was different. First, the high interest rates meant that the debt portion of companies' fixed costs had grown; thus, worries about financing the debt made companies more willing to cut other costs. Second, fear of diminishing competitiveness of American industries left companies less confident about regaining their markets


when the recession ended. In steel, autos, and many other industries, managers felt that costs had to be reduced sometime to meet foreign competition. The recession, when there were few customers anyway, was the right time to shed unnecessary labor. That is what companies did; employment declined more, relative to production, than in previous slumps. High unemployment meant that workers in manufacturing industries had nowhere to go. If they struck, companies that were losing money anyway might close down. As the balance of power between business and labor shifted, the wage-price spiral flattened.

Although Volcker regretted the pain of recession, he believed he had no choice. The war against inflation came first. The chairman put the Fed's case in his March 8, 1983, testimony to the House Budget Committee, replying to Representative Bill Hefner (D-N.C.):

Mr. Hefner : … you can't have it both ways. If monetary policy is responsible for inflation coming down, monetary policy has to be responsible for some of the interest rates being high and unemployment setting records….

Mr. Volcker : … We have had a recession; there is no question that that has helped importantly in precipitating lower inflation…. I don't think we had an either/or choice, that we could do something about it or not; I think economic performance would have been unsatisfactory—ultimately more unsatisfactory—if we hadn't through monetary policy very largely, coped with the inflation problem.[22]

Mr. Volcker's remarks may be simply summarized: Yes, we beat down inflation with unemployment, and we did it on purpose. There was no alternative.

The taming of inflation became the great achievement claimed for Reaganomics. Reagan's real contribution was that by proclaiming hope in the face of the grim task of Volckernomics, he allowed the Fed to do its nasty job. How did Reaganomics allow Reagan not to flinch—and his political supporters to stay with him?

Reaganomics as a Moral Economy

Reaganomics was a political, not an economic, philosophy. The solution to the deficit problem, for example, was always seen as a matter not of calculation but of conviction: If everybody practiced capitalism, there would be a recovery, and then—shazam!—their wish would come true. Stockman's position in the Dunkirk memo—that the very change in policy would alter expectations so dramatically that a surge in investment could revitalize the economy—was merely the most detailed statement of the administration's reliance on self-fulfilling prophecy. What unified


Reaganomics, and its fractious proponents, was not what was included but who was included and what was excluded. Reaganomics excluded demand, that is, ensuring a market, as an object of policy. Supply-siders and monetarists ignored demand because their basic models emphasized different factors. In 1980–1981, due to spiraling inflation, the last thing neoclassicists were worried about was ensuring demand.

Each part of Reaganomics had particular attractions for business. Deregulation, personal tax cuts, and business tax reductions provided direct benefits. These policies also reduced the size and influence of an organization, the federal government, which many businesses viewed with suspicion as, a rival to their power and a threat to their independence.[23] Spending cuts, particularly in the Gramm-Latta package, barely touched business. A balanced budget, if attained, would mean less government borrowing and, other things being equal, lower interest rates. It would also symbolize restraint on the alien power of the politicians. Most important, given what actually occurred, businesses were willing to accept the monetary squeeze. They accepted it in part because the uncertainty associated with inflation was so disorienting. They accepted it also because, like Chairman Volcker and the neoclassical economists, businesses believed that the squeeze could help them regain control of wages so as to adjust their operations for international competition.

Policy to restrain wages was more extensive than we have shown because what did not happen was significant. There was neither a rise in the minimum wage nor the usual long-term extension of unemployment benefits during the recession. It also is impossible to estimate the impact of the administration's hard line in the face of an air traffic controllers' strike; breaking their union in 1981 symbolized the new pattern of labor relations.

Because they liked specific provisions of Reaganomics and could accept the recession, business stayed loyal to the president even when the economy turned down. Thus, while the general public was far more negative, businesses endorsed Reaganomics by large margins in spring and summer 1982. Yet these same business interests were very pessimistic about the economy. In early spring only 23 percent of Business Week's executive sample said that the Reagan package encouraged them to expand capital spending, and half expected no economic upturn before winter; meanwhile the administration and some economists predicted recovery in the summer.[24] After a long period of economic bad news, practical people demand premiums against risk. Most likely, they assume, the future will look like the past; that is the normal logic of expectations. "We're betting on the downside," said the chairman of Boeing Aircraft Corporation. "If we bet on a fast recovery and it didn't happen, we could be in real trouble."[25]Business Week reported that, as the Federal Reserve


also noted, three-quarters of its sample was planning to "utilized labor more efficiently" because of the recession.[26] Here was the paradox of encouraging business with policies: it won political support, but businesses' economic behavior still responded to their judgment of economic conditions.

Reaganomics as a probusiness worldview helps explain why the pain of Volckernomics did not turn business against Reagan. What about other people? Why would they support something very like Republican "old-time religion" with a charming new preacher? Was it just, as Greider got Stockman to say, "trickle-down" disguised as a new "supply-side" theory?

Actually, much of Reaganomics was rejected. The political system delayed and reduced the first year of tax reduction. Although some deregulation occurred, administration efforts frequently bogged down as the courts and Congress demanded that the laws be enforced more strictly. Initiatives, such as the subminimum wage for teenagers and further taxation of unemployment benefits, were blocked. Yet polls kept showing support for Reagan's policies in general.

The Republican campaign for the 1982 congressional elections called for the country to "Stay the Course." The imagery was obvious: the ship battered by storms, the skipper standing tall by the wheel, steering against the gale, sure of his direction. The sense of purpose and command that Reagan worked so hard to project was a bulwark of his political popularity. So also was the public belief that the previous skipper and his mates had led the nation into the storm. Reagan did his best to encourage that memory, referring over and over, inaccurately, to the "depression" conditions prevailing when he took over.

Reagan's view of economics was not a set of theories about the effect on outputs of a particular structure and process of inputs. He could sound like a monetarist, a neoclassicist, or a supply-sider, depending on the subject and his political needs. When he made policy, however, he chose not by inference about how some balance of policies would affect economic outputs but by reference to core principles, mediated by political philosophy. Those principles—reduce government, encourage profit, support individualism—included, but were not limited to, the interest in production and therefore producers ("suppliers," if you will) that united those economic schools allied with the administration.

Stockman's book is filled with examples of what he sees as decisions to fund business at the expense of individualistic principle. Thus, Reagan defended the oil-depletion allowance, subsidies for the nuclear industry, synfuels, and auto import quotas.[27] For each action, however, the president found an individualistic reason: taxes were too high anyway, or nuclear and auto industries were crippled by regulation, or "we can't


cause an honest business to lose money." Even if the president were just rationalizing the politically necessary, the form of rationalization reveals the ideology. Others might have admitted the political pressure for import quotas or said that national security required energy subsidies; Reagan found ways to blame government.

Reagan's individualism was moral and personalistic. He opposed high taxes because of his own wartime experience; he identified with the browbeaten business interest. The exceptions, when he opposed business, proved the rule that his attitudes essentially involved beliefs about individual reward for behavior: he supported tax-compliance measures, such as interest withholding, because they were posed as issues of obeying the law.

When Reagan's ideas broadened to the system level, he blamed government for removing the moral basis of a healthy economy. He believed the New Deal to have been a scam; the postwar economy was not an unprecedented boom but an escalator ride to perdition. On July 28, 1982, Reagan told a press conference that all the previous recessions

have been ended by a quick fix, a flooding of money into the market, temporary spending, artificially stimulating the economy which resulted in high inflation but did give you a kind of quick fever that seemed like prosperity. And the next recession came usually about two years later. We're trying to restore the economy. To get back to a growth economy that will be based on solid principles.

The language used—"solid principles," "artificially stimulating," a "quick fever" of unreal prosperity—expressed his moral view as a proponent of private, not public, enterprise.[28]

From an economic standpoint, federal spending and deficits are different problems; both might be bad, but spending matched by taxes creates one set of problems and deficit spending creates another. For Reagan, the two problems were one; even when it seemed in his interest to disentangle them, his heart seems not to have been in it because "deficit" and "spending" fit together in his own head so neatly. The deficit was the token of irresponsibility, excess, and corruption caused by spending (remember, he assumed that there was great waste). Deficits opposed self-reliance, the moral uprightness that Reagan saw threatened in modern America by Big Government. When people relied on government, instead of on themselves, bad things would happen: recessions, inflation, a loss of precious freedom.

This attitude toward deficits lived deep within American society as well as Ronald Reagan. It shared with supply-side promotionalism the emphasis on individual responsibility and initiative. But true-blue supply-siders did not care much about deficits; to them, deficits were something


to outgrow. Free individual energies, proclaimed the supply-siders, offer a big price for winning; then the growth generated by peoples' striving will overcome all other problems. Ultimately, this was part of a tradition—of a "Don't tread on me!" frontier individualism that resisted regulation of all sorts. Ronald Reagan had some of this frontier individualism in his style, his imagery, indeed his life. But he appealed as well to another strain in the American character, the disposition that Max Weber called the Protestant Ethic, which joins moral constraint to economic liberty. The tradeoff is explicit, its logic strong: If you behave properly, strive hard, work, and save, you will be rewarded with success. In this view, good things come as a consequence of right action; therefore, the community has a right to enforce values by restraining social behavior. That activity does not contradict but rather reinforces the laissez-faire economic policy. Social restraints reinforce economic competition. Too frequently people point to the supposed contradiction between social regulation and economic deregulation in Reaganism without realizing these two ideas have been linked, for good reason, throughout American history.[29]

Reagan's Reaganomics may be called a "moral economy." At its heart, it was a set of beliefs about how people should live together. Like other visions of the good life, it could be invalidated by nothing short of a cataclysm. Short-term results were something to be explained away or manipulated in behalf of the larger goal of preserving or extending the way of life. Those who suffer in such a system are searched for defects; the system, if humane, will allow compensation for accidents or bad luck (the "truly needy") but will never accept the blame for peoples' pain. The "system," the American way, is good for you. From this springs the Reaganite attitude toward welfare, the continual separation of the helpless unfortunate from those who could help themselves.

The president's denial that his package could possibly hurt anyone has the same root: right action cannot hurt any but the immoral. Thus, unlike many Republicans in the Senate and some of his own staff, the president worried little about fairness. To Reagan, fairness meant people getting what they deserved. He replied to criticism with stories about cheating: the welfare queen in Chicago or the food stamps used to purchase vodka. He worried mainly about finding a moral ground because moral principles are not so easily turned aside as statements about matters of fact.

Now the moral leader in an immoral world knows that he must meet the unconverted halfway; but he also believes that continual witnessing of the Word will eventually win the day. Strong in a faith that is bigger than the leader, the leader then communicates that belief to the citizenry. This certitude need not appear as the deadly cold fanaticism of a Robespierre.


Nor need it be the strictness of a Cotton Mather or a John Calvin. A moral leader can forgive the sinners, like a Stockman after the Atlantic article or Jack Kemp after the 1982 tax-hike battle, by recognizing that the world is a difficult place in which to live. The Lord himself forgave Nineveh (much to Jonah's disgust). The Lord even forgave Jonah. Reagan acted as a moral leader first, a policy maker second. Recall that when Ronald Reagan at the last minute in early 1982 rejected his advisers' tax plans—it felt so wrong—he reacted physically to the idea.

The believers in the vision, like their president, would not abandon it because of a few bad months. What Reaganomics offered was a chance to believe, a chance to have their country, for a while, pursue their vision.

Herbert Stein has written that, with the breakdown of the Keynesian consensus, Americans have no theory for fiscal policy. What we wish to add is that Ronald Reagan wanted no fiscal theory; he was quite satisfied with the moral economy (some call it capitalism) he already knew. Nor could economists guarantee that their theories would work better than his.

The Reagan administration would feel pressures to reduce the deficit and thereby interest rates, or even to pump up the economy with further tax cuts. But this administration, far more than most, because of its leader, would accept the painful present. Ronald Reagan would campaign to stay the course because he was strong in his own beliefs. Virtue, his version, surely would be rewarded in the end.

Should Spending Be Limited by Constitutional Amendment?

As the midterm elections approached, the overriding concern was whether a public attracted to Reagan's moral economy, but bowled over by the economic gale, would maintain the Republican de facto majorities in Congress. If not, then Republicans had to find some other appeal to help GOP legislators stay in office. What do you do about Reaganomics if your constituents need help now? One response was focusing attention on their strong moral grounds rather than the short-term economic disaster. Hence the Republicans pushed for a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget. The proposed balanced budget, spending limit amendment was criticized as irrelevant to the existing deficit, but that, we believe, was neither the moral nor the political point.

An amendment to the Constitution that called for balancing the budget and limiting government spending had gathered support slowly since the mid-1970s. Two issue groups, the National Taxpayers Union and the National Tax Limitation Committee, provided most of the lobbying effort. Although balancing the budget was the more politically popular theme, these groups were more interested in limiting government spending


balance at high levels of taxing and spending would be a defeat. Eventually a coalition of legislators and other interested parties formed to push a version of the amendment that would make unbalancing the budget difficult; spending cuts would become the most likely means to achieve budget balance.

Amendment proponents began with little hope of winning the two-thirds of each house necessary to submit an amendment to the states for ratification. Democratic legislators thought it was a bad idea, and their control of procedure, especially in the House, enabled them to keep the issue off the agenda. Amendment proponents, therefore, worked to build pressure on Congress by proceeding on the never-used second route to a constitutional amendment. If two-thirds (thirty-four) of the states so requested, Congress would have to call a new constitutional convention to propose amendments that would, in turn, be submitted to the states for ratification.

No one knew exactly how such a convention would work: who would participate in it, whether its actions could really be limited to balanced budget matters—and so on through a litany of uncertainty. Some argued that a convention might "run away" and radically alter the Constitution. Not likely: getting people to alter a body of law that we have all learned is nearly sacred, and then getting three-quarters of state legislatures to agree, seems wildly improbable.[30] The prospect however, served as a double-edged scare tactic. Although the specter of a "runaway" convention gave them fits because it was hard to prove a negative—a stick-to-the-budget convention—the amendment's advocates felt that these uncertainties added to the appeal of their strategy. They hoped that fear of a convention would cause Congress to act preemptively, that is, to submit an amendment to the states rather than open that Pandora's box.

Balanced budgets are very popular, in the abstract, with the American public. Spending limits are not necessarily so popular, but, because the amendment was presented as a budget-balancing effort and because the polls asked questions accordingly, its advocates could demonstrate overwhelming support for the idea. The amendment was far more popular, just like the balanced budget, than was any particular action to achieve its goal.

On January 31, 1982, Alaska became the thirty-first state to endorse the call. The mushrooming federal deficit strongly encouraged the amendment, for the cries of woe from all sides, liberals included, about interest rates and other supposedly deficit-related evils made action to restrain deficits seem more important, while the failures of first Carter and then Reagan to balance the budget encouraged the belief that only powerful medicine would cure the deficit disease. In American political thinking, a constitutional amendment is the most powerful medicine of


all. With the tally of states nearing the magic thirty-four, and with deficits mushrooming, the amendment movement in Congress grew stronger.

A constitutional amendment to enforce any particular budgeting result takes to an extreme, but hardly unprecedented, point a common political tactic: shaping decisions by changing the rules for deciding. The budget acts of 1921, 1974, and 1985 (Gramm-Rudman-Hollings) were, at least in part, efforts by factions to change budget results by changing procedures. State constitutions include many provisions—such as balanced budget requirements, item vetoes, and limits on how a legislature can alter a governor's budget—designed to ensure balance.[31] The U.S. Constitution is amended far less frequently than are state charters; both the presumption against elevating policy to fundamental law and the difficulty of amendments are greater at the national level. Yet the Constitution itself had emerged from particular concerns, not just abstract principles of governance; the evils of the Articles of Confederation, after all, were more evident to creditors than debtors. The Federalist Papers remains the classic text on how rules may shape results.

Martin Anderson's "Policy Memorandum No. 1" (August 1979) proposed a menu of constitutional changes that include "a constitutional limitation on the percentage of the people's earnings that can be taken and spent by the federal government," a line-item veto, and a balanced budget amendment. These proposals were downplayed in Reagan's campaign because they did not respond to the immediate budget problem; therefore, they could easily be attacked as grandstanding.

Early in the administration, efforts were focused on more direct attacks on the deficit and domestic spending. CEA Chairman Weidenbaum was able to declare:

The President's economic program would accomplish all of the objectives that are sought in the many proposals to balance the budget via Constitutional change. But it would do so without the many drawbacks, such as encumbering the Constitution with matters that more appropriately belong in the policy arena or attempting to rule on matters of technical fiscal administration.[32]

By early March 1982, attacks for grandstanding were still more plausible, but the administration had less to lose by pursuing the constitutional agenda. Getting tough on spending was wearing them down. "We have a lot of Republicans, not to mention Democrats, who absolutely are not going to vote for the size deficits that we face if they can't see a balanced budget at the end of the tunnel," Newsweek quoted a "senior Administration official." "What's more reassuring than an honest-to-God constitutional amendment?"[33] Weidenbaum and Regan issued statements of qualified support. The cabinet met to consider a formal endorsement.


Senate Republicans moved a version of the amendment out of their Judiciary Committee on July 10, 1981. As 1982 began, this version, S.J.Res. 58, had not been brought to the floor. A House companion, H.J.Res. 350, was buried in House Judiciary. The House committee had held hearings but had taken no action.

If it were passed and worked, the amendment would help to entrench the Reagan agenda of a smaller role for government in American society. By backing the amendment, the president also could testify to his support for the balanced budget. More important, he could embarrass the Democrats who had been beating him over the head with his own balanced budget rhetoric and big deficits. Some of them, like James Jones, might be as committed to a balanced budget as Reagan himself, but even those believers would resist the amendment as it was structured. Let them try to explain either that they objected to the text because it was antispending as well as probalance or that a balanced budget was fine but not appropriate for enshrining in the Constitution. When Reagan endorsed the amendment at his March 31, 1982, press conference, he could be accused of hypocrisy for supporting it while simultaneously proposing wildly unbalanced budgets. "It was almost as if the nation's leading distiller," Time commented acidly, "had suddenly come out in favor of Prohibition."[34] But the White House was facing those attacks anyway and would, with at least equal logic, scorn its opponents who denounced both unbalanced budgets and the amendment. Insofar as the amendment was basically about spending and revenue limits, moreover, the president agreed entirely with it.

On April 29, as part of his television address about the breakdown of negotiations in the Gang of 17, he declared:

Once we've created a balanced budget—and we will—I want to insure that we keep it for many long years after I've left office. And there's only one way to do that…. Only a constitutional amendment will do the job. We've tried the carrot [arguing that budget balance is good for the economy so that sacrifices will be repaid] and it failed. With the stick of a balanced budget amendment, we can stop the Government's squandering ways and save our economy.[35]

The amendment would institutionalize the changes that Reagan wanted so they would live on after him.

In the House the amendment's chief sponsor, Barber Conable (with Ed Jenkins, D-Ga.), filed a discharge petition with the House clerk. If 218 members signed the petition, then the amendment could be forced out of House Judiciary over that body's opposition. Although the House version, H.J.Res. 350, had 221 sponsors, it remained to be seen whether


they would all choose to override the committee or whether some of them rather liked cosponsoring a bill that was safely buried.[36]

On July 12 Howard Baker called up S.J.Res. 58 for Senate consideration. The Senate text provided:



"Prior to each fiscal year, the Congress shall adopt a statement of receipts and outlays for that year in which total outlays are no greater than total receipts." Congress could provide for a deficit only by a vote of three-fifths of the whole number of each house (261 representatives or 60 senators; an abstention therefore was identical to a "No"). "The Congress and the President shall ensure that actual outlays do not exceed the outlays set forth in such statement."


Total receipts for a fiscal year could not increase faster than national income had increased in the previous calendar year. That is, FY83 receipts could not grow faster than the 1981 economy. Receipts could only grow beyond that level if a majority of the whole number of each house endorsed a bill (thus again, abstention was a "No") which the president signed into law. This was constitutional indexing of the tax system taken a step further: higher real incomes would no longer raise taxes through the progressive rate structure.


Congress could waive these provisions if a declaration of war were in effect.


"The Congress may not require that the states engage in additional activities without compensation equal to additional costs." That is, Congress could not fob programs off on the states to save money….


Borrowing did not count as receipts, and repayment of debt principal would not count as outlays. The latter was at best an academic concern for the foreseeable future.


"This article shall take effect for the second fiscal year beginning after its ratification"—no earlier, that is, than FY85, and that was highly improbable.

On July 19 Reagan led a GOP rally on the steps of the Capitol in which he asked the familiar question about why the government could not be run like a family: "How can families and family values flourish, when big Government, with its power to tax, inflate and regulate, has absorbed their wealth, usurped their rights and too often crushed their spirit?" James Jones emphasized respect for institutions: "There can only be two results if the amendment is adopted. The most likely is that it will mirror Prohibition—a sham. A second possible result is that it will be enforced, and thus fundamentally change the checks and balances of


the three branches of the Federal Government."[37] Policy, power, and political philosophy were all at stake.

The Senate debated the bill for two weeks and accepted two amendments. One, by Domenici, attempted to calm fears about impoundment; the other, an attempt by William Armstrong to ensure the amendment did its job, took all the slack out of the constitutional change. Armstrong proposed that an increase in the debt ceiling should also require a three-fifths vote. Therefore, if the president and Congress tried to ignore the amendment in the event of, say, increases in recession-related outlays, the debt limit would force action. Most Republicans thought it was trouble and opposed it 20 to 31. In a classic case of sabotage, Democrats, convinced Armstrong's modification would make the whole business less palatable, supported him 31 to 14. Nevertheless, the amendment passed the Senate by 69 to 31 (2 votes more than the 67 needed) as a number of senators, after voicing grave doubts, supported the amendment. The vote was as much regional as partisan. Republicans, who had to go on record, voted 47 to 7 for the amendment, southern Democrats 13 to 2 in favor, and northern Democrats 9 to 22 against.

The battle now shifted to the House, where no doubt some senators hoped the bill would be buried. Many Washington leaders doubted that the amendment, even if passed by Congress, would actually be ratified; signs at the state level suggested they might be right.[38] But also they might be wrong, and House leaders were not about to take that chance. Their resistance meant proponents had to blow the amendment out of committee with a discharge petition. On September 29, after a last-minute drive led by Vice President Bush, Stockman, and House GOP leaders, proponents got the 218th signature.

Rather than let the issue sit for a couple of weeks at the height of election season—as standard procedure and Republican hopes prescribed—House leaders responded by bringing the amendment to the floor immediately. Their rule also allowed a substitute by Representative Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), heavily watered down. Alexander's proposal would provide political cover so that some members could vote against Conable-Jenkins yet still say they had voted for a balanced budget amendment.[39]

At 10:00 a.m. on October 1, 1982, the House convened to debate and to vote on enshrining in the Constitution the balanced budget and spending limits. Congressmen pleaded with each other and played to the gallery, rising to impressive levels of rhetoric or descending to equally impressive depths of sophistry. We cannot capture all the arguments, but we can provide the flavor of the debate, a picture of the House at work during one of the rare times when the work really was done on the floor and the differences in political philosophy came to the fore.


Richard Bolling led the debate, professing a nonpartisan worry for the fate of the political process. He expressed sorrow that "the gentleman from New York (Mr. Conable) … has truly given up on the essential democratic process. He puts certain things in his resolution … which would require super majorities to decide that there will be an unbalanced budget."[40] Conable replied:

We have already done irreparable damage to the Republic in seventeen of the eighteen years I have served here…. Congress should be a place of judgment. When judgment is not wisely exercised it is appropriate that we put some limitations on that exercise of judgment and that is what the Constitution does in many cases.[41]

Delbert Latta scored the big spenders who wanted to grab tax money, spreading benefits now that would have to be paid for by their grandchildren. Where Latta saw spenders, David Obey saw cowards and hypocrites:

Mr. Speaker … this administration is giving hypocrisy a bad name. This administration pretends that it is fighting for a balanced budget. If it is losing that battle, it is losing that battle to itself….

I have talked to at least twenty members on that side of the aisle, and more members on this side of the aisle. I have asked them how they could sign this discharge petition and how they can vote for this today, including members of the Judiciary Committee. They have hung their heads, and they have said, "Well, I know, I hate to do it, but I just cannot go home and explain it to my people."

I would suggest that it goes with the territory…. If members are not willing to go home to their own districts and tell them what their honest beliefs are about something as crucial as this, then you do not belong here.[42]

After the rule was passed, debate was controlled by the two leaders of the Judiciary Committee: Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) and Robert McClory (R-Ill.). McClory spoke to charges that the amendment would be ineffective.

I do not accept the notion that Congress will ignore the mandate of the Constitution if House Joint Resolution 350 is proposed and ratified. Congress has made good faith efforts to obey the Constitution throughout its history. While it may have been mistaken about the constitutionality of its legislation, I cannot accept that its errors were willful…. In fact, it is my observation that Members would prefer to be so constrained than to be free to be unduly pressured by special interests.[43]

"Forced to be free" was a theme of the debate among those who responded to widespread concern about inability to govern effectively.


In what would be the main opposition speech, Peter Rodino went step by step through the alleged uncertainties in the text—the inability to predict deficits, the antimajoritarian cast, the delegation of powers to the president or the courts. "What do the courts do then?" he asked, "Write the budget? Appropriate the money? Order arrests?" He concluded:

The proposal would demean the Constitution. The Constitution is a document that guarantees fundamental rights and freedoms and provides for the orderly operation of Government. This amendment is a constitutional guarantee of nothing. It provides a balanced budget—except sometimes: When three-fifths of Congress says otherwise; when revenues fall below estimates; in times of declared war; when Congress cannot agree on cutting spending; when Congress cannot agree on raising taxes. It could be an invitation to fiscal gimmickry or a prescription for paralysis of Government, for confrontation among the branches, for economic chaos.[44]

The proposed amendment led the party of change to a more ardent defense of an unchanging Constitution than had been its custom.

Phil Gramm replied by describing the bias toward spending the amendment sought to correct:

In the last Congress, the average bill we worked on with amendments cost about $50 million. There are 100 million taxpayers. That is 50 cents a head. The average beneficiary got $500. You do not have to have studied economics at Texas A&M [where he had taught] to know that somebody is willing to do more to get $500 than somebody is willing to do to prevent spending 50 cents…. This is a perfect example of where a constitutional constraint on elected officials is required.[45]

A leader of southern Republicans, Ed Bethune, made one of the most interesting arguments against the amendment. Conservatives, he declared, should be leading the opposition to such attempts to hamstring the play of political forces. The amendment would fail because it depended on the "fallacious assumption that budgeteers can accurately calculate one indispensable, exalted number—the deficit—which will tell us whether we are winning or losing the battle for a rational fiscal policy. Nothing could be further from the truth." Not only were estimates wildly unreliable, Bethune continued, but the spending figures did not "begin to reflect the many ways in which the Government can and does impact our nation's economy." The amendment would not deal with what he considered the real problem. The Senate Judiciary Committee, Bethune proclaimed,

published a wordy finding that Congress is plagued with an institutional "spending bias." They concluded that politicians will not cast "politically


disadvantageous votes" to restrain spending and that a constitutional amendment is the only way to overcome such a disease…. That may be so under the circumstances we can see today, but there is nothing new in the Senate findings. These same problems have plagued democratic governments since the origin of man. The strained analysis, however, basically comes down to a contention that the people at large are too stupid and indifferent to know how to correct the problem.

That attitude, Bethune argued, was wrong. The people had perceived and were correcting overspending. Conservatives were being elected to Congress, attitudes had changed, and "the politically disadvantageous vote in today's climate, contrary to the Senate's findings, is a vote for new spending or a vote which does nothing to restrain the growth of spending." New forces were forming; old actors were adjusting to new realities; old institutions, like Senate staffs, were transformed; and "the political parties are competing intensely on the basis that one is better equipped than the other to bring a balanced budget." Perhaps all that would come to nothing. But if the forces were not strong enough, a constitutional amendment would also fail. Although the people had little faith in men and parties, they did have faith in the Constitution. That trust should not be hazarded lightly.[46]

California Republican Jerry Lewis returned to the mythology that surrounds and buttresses our political system: What, after all, would the hallowed Founders have said about this proposal? Where Rodino and Bethune had argued that their work should be left untouched, Lewis proclaimed:

The Founding Fathers were most reserved about the prospect of expanding central Government. They recognized that Government growth would require taxes and that to tax was to take people's property. Never in their wildest dreams would they have imagined that the Congress would come to the point where they were taking not only high percentages of the productive value of today's citizens—but placing in debt the property and productive potential of their children and grandchildren as well. Mr. Chairman, I suggest it is absolutely reasonable to let the people decide whether or not in the future there shall be required by the Constitution an extra majority of the Congress before it can budget beyond our means.[47]

Lewis's side was invoking the majority's right to adopt an antimajoritarian provision (the people should decide whether to adopt the amendment) while his opponents ultimately were relying on an antimajoritarian procedure (the two-thirds requirement on amendments) in their fight against the antimajoritarian proposal. Ironic, yes, but nothing new. While we eschew the Spockian "mindlock" (recall "Star Trek") with the


framers others so easily achieve, the Founding Fathers so fervently invoked remain practical politicians, leaders who lived on the fine line between principle and expedience. Thus, Hamilton would inveigh against the debt if it helped him get the Constitution ratified, and Jefferson, the great apostle of limits on both executives and government itself, was actually the most dominant of presidents, purchasing Louisiana with absolutely no authority. Perhaps there were no Jeffersons or Hamiltons in the House on October 1, 1982, but the task and burden of the politician remained the same.

The Alexander substitute went down 77 to 346, but it provided cover for many southern Democrats who opposed the amendment but wanted to go on record in favor of balancing the budget. Then the balanced budget amendment fell short of the required two-thirds vote, with 236 yeas and 187 nays. Led by the former minority leader, Arizona's John Rhodes, Silvio Conte, Ed Bethune, and Jack Kemp, twenty Republicans opposed the president and their party.

"One way or another we're going to get this," Barber Conable declared. But the amendment did not take hold as an election issue, and 1982 was a bad year for Republicans. The proamendment forces, surveying the postelection wreckage, could see little hope in the states and none in the House.[48] At this writing (summer 1988), it seems that the campaign for a constitutional amendment, after cresting on October 1, 1982, has receded; two states have reversed their support. But the effort to change the politics by changing the rules continues.

In this elevated conversation two truths compete: Efforts to thwart majority rule are likely to fail when people learn how to avoid, use, or circumvent any provision (our book has enough examples of gamesmanship to suit anyone). However, the rules of the game, including institutional biases, help determine the outcomes; this is the truth on which our constitutional structure, including the separation of powers, is based. Like the great constitutional debates of the past, the issues are illuminated but remain unresolved. An occasional conservative may argue in favor of allowing the balance that comes in shifts of public opinion to diminish the tendency to spend more and tax less. A liberal may accept the desirability of erecting institutional impediments to being overly generous, as Congress did when it erected obstacles in the path of new entitlements. On the whole, however, positions about rules followed from opinions about desirable outcomes—moderated by perceptions of constituency pressure. There had to be a moderate majority out there somewhere, or so the budget balancers hoped. TEFRA showed it. If only they could adjust the rules, so the moderates could govern again, then they might find the pony under all the dirty budget work.


Although the term moderate-extremist may appear to be an oxymoron, the passion of those committed to budget balance would grow in proportion as its realization declined. Then we would be treated to an unusual spectacle indeed: moderate defenders of responsible government violating its procedures in the name of a higher value—the ever-elusive balance.


Guerrilla Warfare: Spending Politics, 1982

Amid battles of ideology and procedure, the nation's elected representatives and chief executive still had to run a government. Of the three 1982 battles already described—the constitutional amendment, budget resolution, and TEFRA—only TEFRA directly affected the goods and services government provided to citizens. Budget resolutions spend no money. The amendment was steps further removed from government activity. When members of Congress turned to legislation and appropriations, vague numbers—a percentage of GNP on the amendment, a functional total on the resolution—became far less attractive line-item reductions in specific programs. Just like the voters, legislators preferred abstract budget balancing to concrete spending cuts. When voting on the latter, it was more difficult to ignore both policy and political consequences: dams were not built; hot lunches were not served; transit fares were raised; and citizens were unhappy. As consequences became more direct, support for budget cutting declined, from a substantial (though not two-thirds) House majority for the amendment, to a bare majority on the budget resolution, to minorities on the appropriations bills.

Reagan and Stockman wanted to use the growing deficit to pressure domestic spending downward. By cutting or eliminating new appropriations, they could slash programs while bypassing the chairmen who would bottle up legislative proposals to eliminate them. Yet neither House nor Senate appropriations leaders, of either party, much approved of Reagan's agenda. In September, Republican leaders on Appropriations finally revolted. First Silvio Conte in the House and then Mark Hatfield in the Senate led their chambers in overriding the president's veto of a FY82 supplemental appropriations bill.

The conditioning event in all of 1982's spending battles was the recession.


The ideological shift against public works spending, which we saw in 1980, the giant budget deficits, and Reagan's veto all assured there would be no big new programs. Yet constituencies, including Republican constituencies, were suffering. Slashing the poor's benefits while their ranks grew was difficult to defend. As unemployment rose to the highest level since the Great Depression, even the taboo against jobs spending weakened. By December, Reagan, who in September said only a "palace coup" could win his support for such a plan, was backing a big increase in transportation funding, financed by doubling the gasoline tax.

In terms of the mathematics of deficit reduction, the appropriations battles were not so important. Congress appropriated $7 billion more than the president requested. Although an unprecedented increase, this was a very small proportion of the deficit. Yet it hid a much larger increase in domestic programs, which was balanced by scaling down the defense buildup. To update Senator Dirksen, a billion here and a billion there may not be real money in the macropicture of budgeting, but it is plenty of real policy. The policy stakes in appropriations were big enough that they were transmuted into power stakes, as the administration and its opponents each tried to win battles to establish momentum for the next.

We may push the military analogy further. Spending conflict in 1981 resembled a set-piece battle; the entire forces of each side collided in the House on reconciliation where huge amounts of budgetary territory were at stake. The struggles of 1982 were more like guerrilla warfare, a series of skirmishes over small pieces of territory, at the end of which control remained dubious. The drift of events, however, was clear: the administration, aggressive early in the year, was on the defensive in late 1982.

As 1982 began, the administration proposed not only substantial appropriations cuts in its FY83 budget but also substantial rescissions of funds appropriated in FY82. These proposals reflected a change in policy as well as a change in the role of the president's office, particularly OMB, in budget making. When David Stockman took over at OMB, he accelerated alterations in its relationships with Congress that had begun during the Carter administration. As a top OMB official wrote, the details of cuts were less important than

the way in which this revision took place. Traditionally the American budget is developed by the executive and presented to the Congress and the public without formal discussions or negotiations…. In contrast, the [fiscal] 1981 budget revisions were literally negotiated between executive branch representatives (primarily the Office of Management and Budget and the White House) and the leadership in both houses of the Congress.[1]


Stockman institutionalized the ad hoc developments of 1980 and took them a giant step further. Executive budgeting became far more "top-down." He shifted OMB's focus from examining and assembling agency requests to lobbying the administration's budget through Congress. Staff was dedicated to tracking budget action through the multiple stages of the congressional process, not to examining agency requests. To facilitate this tracking, Stockman ordered the development of a computer system that aggregated budget items by both budget function categories and committee jurisdictions, allowing him to trace the spending implications of action at all levels. Stockman could use his resources this way because he really needed to know nothing about the agencies. For at least a few years he could get by with previous analysis by OMB, the extensive literature produced by GAO, CBO, and the think tanks, and his own prejudices about what government should and should not do. The new OMB approach, Hale Champion commented, "almost excluded cabinet departments and agencies from the formulation of the budget."[2]

Because Stockman (and President Reagan) were interested in achieving their preferred set of cuts, not in using the budget to finance agencies, OMB also moved away from the norm of annual budgeting. The annual budget served many needs, but its primary purpose was to regularize the financing and therefore functioning of government agencies. Funded for a year in advance, an agency would be able to plan its activities. Stockman discarded the norm of the annual budget in 1981 and 1982, proposing large rescissions of spending that meant reneging on commitments; in effect, the budget was being remade several times a year. This would not exactly reduce budgetary conflict. With the budget under continuous negotiation, even a place in the formal budget did not guarantee funding at the formerly agreed level. As part of its budget cutting, OMB also interfered directly in agency administration; for example, OMB issued orders to the Park Service, forbidding hiring up to the levels allowed in the appropriations legislation.

Both House and Senate Appropriations Committees, as part of their job of overseeing program administration, found themselves defending agencies against OMB's attacks. Committee members objected to the repeated cuts on both programmatic and legislative grounds; in rescissions the president challenged the power of Congress through its appropriations committees.

Supplemental Appropriations

The year 1982 began quietly enough. Much of the government was still running on the December 1981 Continuing Resolution (for FY82), which


would expire by the end of March. The administration chose not to hold the CR hostage for further spending cuts because the Gang-of-17 negotiations had begun and such a conflict would not encourage deal making. Therefore, after bizarre maneuvers regarding legislators' taxes—which we will ignore for the moment but will confront later—the previous CR was extended with bipartisan support but without attention to the budget targets from the previous year.

Instead, the administration chose to use a supplemental appropriation for a number of other programs, such as Guaranteed Student Loans and sewage treatment grants, as a vehicle for spending reductions. OMB proposed rescissions of more than $9.4 billion, mostly in subsidized housing but also in education programs. It proposed new rules for student loans to shave $400 million from the $1.3 billion extra cost.

Congressional opinion about the education rescissions in particular, and rescissions in general, was best indicated by the remarks of Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the majority whip, in an Appropriations hearing. He told Ms. Harrison of the Department of Education that to rescind the funds would mean grantees had been misled. She replied that Reagan's administration and previous administrations had opposed the program involved. "But successive Congresses have disagreed," Stevens reminded her, and "the president signed that bill last year." "That's why we are proposing a rescission," Ms. Harrison explained. "I think the Department is just buying itself a fight," the senator responded. "There is a de facto breaking of a commitment as far as the Government is concerned…. You people are not reading Congress correctly if you think you are going to get away with this."[3]

With the rescissions, and the pay raises still unfunded, the administration created an "urgent supplemental appropriation" proposal that would reduce budget authority by about $5 billion (subtraction under the guise of addition, a rather neat trick). House Appropriations, unimpressed, rejected almost all the rescissions, although it agreed to defer $3.8 billion. It then added some social spending, reporting a bill that would increase budget authority by about $5 billion.

This large but straightforward difference of opinion was then complicated by the demands of the housing industry for relief from the effects of recession and high interest rates. Republican representatives Tom Corcoran of Illinois and Thomas B. Evans, Jr., of Delaware wanted to take $1 billion from the synfuels program and use it for a new mortgage subsidy program. Majority Leader Jim Wright, an ardent defender of synfuels, objected. With the housing industry in desperate shape, however, the Corcoran and Evans proposal might well have passed with heavy Democratic support. Democratic leadership did not want Republicans to get credit for helping housing. Instead, after a delay, the Democrats


produced both a housing proposal that did not take the money from synfuels and a rule that allowed a vote on that amendment, legislation on an appropriations bill, but not on the Corcoran and Evans plan. Seeing little chance of Democratic defections on the rule, Republicans let it ride, and then, although Stockman promised a veto, most Republicans voted for the housing money.

Senate Appropriations acceded to most of the housing rescissions that the lower chamber had rejected. The Senate committee then tacked on a $1 billion appropriation and a five-year $5 billion authorization for a different mortgage subsidy plan, this one designed by Richard Lugar. Making the bill still more controversial, Appropriations Committee members also added provisions regarding senators' tax deductions that could increase their incomes.

Senator Lugar insisted his housing plan was a way to fight unemployment; William Armstrong (R-Colo.) argued that Lugar's plan would only pave the way for bailouts of other troubled industries; the administration fervently opposed Lugar as well. On this issue, the organs of responsibility," opposed as they were to spending programs, backed the administration. "Getting down the deficit," Time quoted a real estate economist, "is the only solution."[4]Newsweek reported, with similar skepticism, that "it happens every recession: mindful of plunging economic indicators and—more to the point—upcoming elections, Congress scrambles to bail out the industries feeling the most pain."[5] Reagan risked little media opprobrium for threatening a veto. Because the public at large and the interests involved might be less convinced that aid to housing or for jobs was bad, legislators still wanted to appear to be helping.

In conference the two houses split the difference on mortgage assistance and allowed most housing rescissions. The bill that emerged was still more than $4 billion over the administration's request, so Reagan vetoed it on June 24. A move to override failed when House Republicans supported the president, 131 to 53. Democrats thereby got those Republicans on record against housing aid.

Appropriations and Democratic leaders now turned to devising a supplemental that might get signed. They created, and the House passed, a "fat" and a "skinny" supplemental. The fat bill, H. R. 6682, did not contain the new mortgage subsidies and a number of other items that could wait until the next round; however, it provided lower rescissions and more spending than Reagan had requested. After the Senate passed the fat version on June 25, Reagan immediately vetoed it. Two days, two bills, two vetoes. For good measure, Stockman told Hatfield that the skinny bill, H. R. 6685, also would be vetoed. After those two bargained for a bit, Senate Appropriations reported an amended H. R. 6685 that rescinded more subsidized housing funds.[6] On the floor, a Democratic


effort to restore the $3 billion conference version of the mortgage subsidy program was tabled, 48 to 44. Now Republican senators were on record against housing aid.

Democrats' strategy was to get spending increases if they could, but, if not, they at least wanted to get the Republicans on record against them. David Mayhew's classic analysis of position taking applies here:

A congressman can hardly be blamed if there are not enough right-thinking members around to allow him to carry his motions. He's fighting the good fight…. We do not ordinarily think of losses as being politically harmful. We can all point to a good many instances in which congressmen seem to have gotten into trouble by being on the wrong side of a roll call vote, but who can think of one where a member got into trouble by being on the losing side?[7]

The president also might believe there was political mileage in using his veto against big spenders. He, however, had more stake in the results. People understand if their representative is outvoted; they may be less sympathetic if their president loses. The president's inside-the-beltway reputation for effectiveness is particularly important, for it shapes how seriously other political actors take those preferences.[8] Reagan therefore had to care more about winning.

With a few minor changes, the skinny bill passed the Senate, and everyone went home to celebrate Independence Day. When the House returned, it tried but failed to override the veto of the fat bill and then went to conference on the skinny bill. More money was taken out of subsidized housing and spread around on more popular programs. (For various reasons, including being a fairly ineffective use of money, subsidized housing construction, the primary target, was less popular than almost anything else.) Stockman accepted the resulting package; Howard Baker commented that in any case a veto would have been hard to sustain.[9] The skinny bill was a draw. It provided $390 million more new spending than the administration requested, accepting most housing but no other rescissions.

The appropriations committees' rejection of most domestic spending cuts would be ascribed by Stockman to the politicians' appetite for constituency pork. Yet there were at least two other sources. First, the administration itself tried to deny that its cuts would do harm, while Congress found those arguments incredible. "The impression you give us," Senator Andrews (R-N.D.) told an administration witness, "is that somehow or another you have found a magic way of doing exactly the same thing that has been done years ago for two-thirds of the cost." Andrews did not believe in magic.[10] When told by agency officials that local governments would make up cuts in federal aid to libraries, Senator


Hatfield replied that they were wrong and they knew it.[11] Appropriations members built a record against the cuts. Second, Appropriations elders did not see major policy changes as part of either their jurisdiction or budgeting. "Tell me," Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) of the House Appropriations Interior subcommittee asked the director of the National Park Service, "about the historic preservation fund. Has Congress repealed the basic legislation for which you are eliminating all funds?" "No, sir," replied Mr. Dickerson. "Why are you eliminating the funds then?" asked the chairman. As a senior Republican on House Appropriations commented to us about eliminating programs. "You can do that, but you have to do it in the authorizing committees."[12]

In July OMB requested a new FY82 supplemental, including the annual pay raise, $2.4 billion in new defense authority, and $5 billion more for the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). As the agricultural sector's problems mounted, the CCC was turning into an unstoppable money pump. Defense, CCC, salaries, and foreign aid increases accounted for $14.2 billion of a $16.3 billion administration request.

House Appropriations accepted mandatory increases like pay raises and CCC, but otherwise it gave the president none of what he wanted. The supplemental provided only one-sixth of the requested defense funds. House Appropriations also reduced extra medicaid funding, saying that it could wait until FY83 action. These reductions enabled the committee to add about $1 billion to such programs as community service employment for the elderly, education for the disadvantaged, college student aid, and interstate highways—that is, many programs the administration had been working all year to reduce. Yet the defense reductions kept the House committee bill well under the president's proposed spending. It passed easily on the floor. Senate action basically followed the House.

Because their version called for $1.8 billion less than the president's request, members of Congress could argue that the bill was fiscally responsible, differing only marginally from the president's request. Actually, members had rejected his policy preferences and imposed their own on almost every plausibly discretionary item. OMB therefore urged a veto of the bill, supported by political advisers who felt that a veto would mollify conservatives upset about the tax increase. On August 19 Senator Stevens warned that "I don't think anything is to be gained by vetoing this one. A veto would be overridden in the Senate."[13] Mark Hatfield warned he would fight all future defense increases if the president vetoed. Reagan vetoed the bill anyway, denouncing it as a billion dollar budget buster.

Democratic leaders did not expect to override Reagan in the House. But with Silvio Conte leading the effort, the override succeeded, 301 to


117. Members had been infuriated by the president's claim that they had busted the budget; Reagan seemed to be saying that fiscal responsibility meant not just his totals but his priorities. Of course, within Reagan's moral economy, that was exactly what fiscal responsibility did mean; but Congress did not agree. To everyone's surprise, Senate leaders now had to take sides on the veto. Hatfield flew back to Washington on a red-eye flight to lead the override forces.

Nobody can say exactly what shaped that vote. An administration leader said, simply, "They'd [the Republicans] been up the mountain too many times." A House Republican staffer who was deeply involved said, "It was just a tactical error by OMB. What overrode the veto was just the older Americans' money. I never regarded that as other than a tactical success by the elderly lobby…. It proved nothing but don't screw around with the elderly."

Certainly part of Reagan's problem was money for jobs for the elderly. The program, that no one except Stockman wanted to close down, was out of funds. Even Reagan, after vetoing, backed off and explained he had not known about the older Americans money. Mark Hatfield used money for the elderly as an example of why Congress should set priorities:

I have swallowed hard many times. I have literally held my nose on occasion in order to be a part of the majority party … to demonstrate the capability of the majority to govern….

There comes a time in a person's life when conscience and principle transcend all the affections and loyalties of the party and to one's president….

The President may later claim an oversight, but we cannot…. The question is simple and straightforward. Will the Congress, which passed this measure by substantial majorities, kowtow to David Stockman in his singleminded desire to eliminate programs of great value and importance to the people of this Nation, or will Congress assert its own priorities and prerogatives and responsibilities?[14]

Even Senator Domenici supported the override. The stakes had been exaggerated on both sides, he argued; clearly the bill was no budget buster so there was no point to a confrontation that would shut down the civil service. Howard Baker supported the president but without urgency. "They did their regular whip checks," one aide recalled, "but did not make it a big issue." When the vote was taken, the Senate overrode the veto, 60 to 30.

In politics, why something happened may be less important than why people think it did. Robert Michel's interpretation was telling: "The principle reason we lost was that you cannot make a good argument that


Congress was busting the budget. You couldn't make a good argument on the numbers. Maybe, for the long haul, the administration could learn something from this"[15] Indeed. One lesson was that Conte and Hatfield could beat the White House. Another was that legislators were much less susceptible to pressure when they could not accurately be accused of swelling the deficit. Unlike events in 1981, Congress, not Stockman, was keeping score; if a bill fit Congress's scorekeeping, a veto might yield only an embarrassing defeat.

The supplemental veto override of September 10, 1982, therefore, was a watershed in the battle over priorities. The override also revealed the strength of pressure to restrain deficits. It succeeded where others failed because total spending fell below the amount requested. Congress would not explicitly increase deficits.

Appropriators, meanwhile, had been working on FY83 appropriations. The House committee had always taken pride in appropriating (by hook or by crook) less than the president requested. But Reagan went too far; the second session of the 97th Congress ended up appropriating $7 billion more, including later revisions, than the administration's estimates over the course of 1982. Congress kept the increase that low by chopping $18 billion on the defense side; in fact, it appropriated about 10 percent more for domestic discretionary programs than the president had requested. The committees treated the president's proposals not as a neutral upper bound but as a partisan position, worth consideration only to the extent that Reagan and his partisans in Congress could force its consideration.

Without the president's budget as a guide, appropriators resorted to two other standards. One was the previous year's policy, expressed as the CBO baseline. The huge deficits made spending above that level taboo, but, because of the recession, cuts below it were also questionable. The other standard was the spending allocated to the appropriations committees under the first budget resolution. They acknowledged that the resolution's totals constrained them but refused to accept budget committee assumptions about the line items.[16] They ignored the resolution's priorities, being quite blunt about their opposition to domestic cuts.

Appropriators established the priorities within their allotted spending through the budget act 302(b) allocation process. Under 302(b), each committee had to report a division of the resolutions totals among its subcommittees. In 1982 hardly anyone outside the appropriations committees knew what a 302(b) was. Yet the 302(b) within Appropriations would soon become almost a second budget process, potentially as contentious as that of setting priorities in budget resolutions. Conflict was limited because entitlements and revenues were excluded. Yet, in terms


of results—particularly defense versus domestic—the 302(b)s were very important because appropriations spend money; budget resolutions do not.

In both House and Senate, full committee staffers would go to each subcommittee and ask the clerks how much they "needed." Clerks would consult with their chairs, who usually checked in with the ranking minority and other subcommittee members. Some subcommittees would accept Budget Committee assumptions as guidelines; most would not. Subcommittee chairs had to trust the "big" chairman's judgment of what kind of distribution would be both supported by other leaders and helpful to passage on the floor. A House subcommittee chairman commented that "it's a very subtle process. It really works out to be the staff acting as buffers with all the subcommittee chairmen." Members defer to the staff and Chairman Whitten because "it's easier. It avoids the recriminating and hostility."

House subcommittees reported bills that purported to spend less than the 302(b) allocations. Rather than let underestimations of entitlements force reductions in discretionary spending, subcommittees wanted to force Stockman to raise his estimates. Although the bills more or less conformed to the budget resolution, amounts were well over the president's budget in many categories. Appropriators and Democratic leaders, therefore, had to devise a way around the president's veto.

We do not know if anyone plotted the subsequent strategy explicitly; perhaps no one needed to. Our sources claim it happened naturally. House Appropriations held the DOD bill hostage pending satisfactory settlement on other contentious measures. The DOD subcommittee waited until early December before reporting out its measure, but everything else was reported out by September 29. In the end, the most contentious domestic-spending bills would be wrapped into a continuing resolution package with defense; if Reagan vetoed, therefore, he would be vetoing something he badly wanted as well as activities he proposed. This use of the continuing resolution would informally but significantly modify the budget process.

As Congress passed TEFRA and the supplemental FY82 appropriations and as FY83 appropriations worked their way through the process, Congress also had to pass the second reconciliation bill. A second reconciliation? one might ask. Wasn't the whole idea of reconciliation to put everything into one big package? Well, yes, that is what everybody said. In 1981 all the commentators remarked on the brilliant strategy of one big vote, but it required the House leadership's cooperation, which was no longer (in fact, far from) forthcoming. Democratic leaders decided that there was no reason to make life easy for their opponents by creating


a package. Instead, they brought up separate reconciliation bills for separate votes.

Nothing interesting happened in the separate votes on Veterans and Banking, but the agriculture committees became creative. The budget resolution assumed that food stamps and other nutrition programs would be reduced. The Senate committee mostly complied, although its food stamp savings were less than convincing. With the Commodity Credit Corporation hemorrhaging and farmers in real trouble, Senate Agriculture also felt it could do something more constructive. The Senate side endorsed changes in farm programs of the "pay now to save later" variety. Encouragement of farm exports and controls on production would cost money up front but would also raise prices and reduce yields, thereby increasing farm incomes and (hopefully) reducing federal obligations under the commodity loan and price-support programs. The House committee cut food stamps less and projected billions in savings from new efforts to reduce yields of milk, wheat, and corn.[17] In the short run, the wheat and corn plans would have put cash directly in the hands of farmers.

OMB claimed that the House committee and CBO savings estimates were off by about $3 billion. In fact no one knew. The administration's credibility on the subject was limited; after all, OMB had projected spending cuts in 1981 and now in the course of 1982 was to request nearly $17 billion in extra funding for the CCC (the $10 billion in FY82 supplementals and another $6.7 billion in December). Meanwhile, something had to be done about both costs and the farmers, so the House ignored OMB's criticisms. The Agriculture Committee proposals passed easily. The only strong challenge was on food stamps, where Delbert Latta's larger reductions were defeated when enough gypsy moths voted with the Democrats to balance boll weevil defections.

The Post Office and Civil Service Committee, which was expected to cap Civil Service Retirement (CSR) COLAs at 4 percent, not only refused to do so but proposed minimal other savings in place of that cap. It thus became the first committee to defy reconciliation. The committee's bill was brought to the floor under a rule that kindly allowed Republicans to undo the damage with an amendment placing the 4 percent cap on the pensions of two million politically active federal retirees (and, by extension, another two million military retirees). "We are not considering reconciliation in the context of fiscal responsibility," complained Minority Leader Michel. "We are being forced to consider individual bills tailored to embarrass and frustrate those in the House who supported the budget resolution in June." It was convenient to forget that Republicans had forced a similar situation in 1980. Leon Panetta replied that "members


cannot come here and support a budget resolution that calls for certain cuts and then hide from the ability to vote up or down on those cuts."[18] "I challenge you to offer the amendment" to reduce CSR COLAs, chided Post Office and Civil Service Committee Chairman William Ford (D-Mich.).[19] Republicans were not about to take that dare. They challenged the rule but lost 240 to 170; the Post Office Committee package then passed with equal ease.

The conference agreement followed congressional inclinations to restrict agriculture production, interfering with the market. It met civil service pension targets through some extremely creative drafting. CBO had to score the package as meeting the targets, but in the end it wasn't close.[20] The final bill claimed savings of $13.6 billion over three years, substantially more than the committees had been ordered to achieve. Nobody could tell if the claim were true. The bill was generally reported as a victory for Reagan and the budget process, but it is a strange set of cuts that hurts few constituents. As on TEFRA, the administration had negotiated unsuccessfully on programs.

Getting Through the Election

After reconciliation and the September veto override, Congress had to finish up FY83 appropriations so it could recess for the election. Both Speaker O'Neill and Senate Majority Leader Baker were tempted to wrap up everything for the year in the continuing resolution, but the administration refused. On the day House Appropriations reported out its CR, the president called for a lame-duck session. Reagan explained his demand in procedural terms, deploring the attempt "to run the Federal Government without a proper budget." Tip O'Neill scoffed, "You know what happened, the defense figures are so much lower, and they don't want them."[21]

No one likes lame-duck sessions. Howard Baker apparently figured that whatever deal could be cut with the House could be done as easily before the election as after. Barring Republican gains in November—which, with unemployment headed over 10 percent, seemed unlikely—there was no reason to wait. But the president's procedural argument, supported by such unlikely allies as the New York Times, was hard to counter. Baker and O'Neill grudgingly agreed to the postelection session.

The House, therefore, with support from some GOP leaders, passed a short-term continuing resolution 242 to 161. In the Senate, Appropriations Committee members set defense spending at their own desired level, tacked a few authorizations on to the bill, and reported it out. In a thirteen-hour session on September 23, senators rejected all major Democratic spending amendments but added a miscellany of authorizing


measures. Proponents were grabbing seats on the CR train. Disgusted, Jamie Whitten asserted that the result "attacked the whole idea of being a continuing resolution—it's a catchall legislative bill."[22] Not for the last time.

House conferees realized they could not get away with keeping defense at FY82 levels. The prodefense mood had been eroded but not ended. They settled for allowing DOD to spend at a rate of about $229 billion for the year, albeit with restrictions on some new procurement. The Pentagon was thus assured a 14 percent nominal spending increase, quite substantial because inflation would be under 5 percent. Nevertheless, DOD was unhappy because the spending level and restrictions on procurement represented substantial changes from its request. In our opinion the giant FY83 request had made the final increase seem less huge. For domestic spending, in contrast, the status quo, hemmed in by recession and deficit, was the implicit standard.

Legislators' attention turned to—though it had never really left—the campaign.

The Election of 1982

In 1981 Republicans had thought that 1982 might be the year when they finally captured the House. The president's party normally lost seats in a midterm election, but, if a political realignment were in progress, 1982 could be, like 1934, the exception to the rule. After the 1980 census, redistricting would shift congressional seats from the declining Democratic Frostbelt to the booming Republican Sunbelt.

The Republicans had a further advantage in the Senate, where only 12 of their seats but 21 Democratic seats were at stake. Republicans had also developed a superior campaign apparatus: The GOP could raise more money than the Democrats. That did not ensure that Republican candidates would have more money than their opponents, for Democratic incumbents could generate substantial contributions. But it did mean that Republican challengers would be better funded than Democratic challengers. The Republican National Committee not only provided campaign assistance in each district, but it also helped to recruit attractive candidates, guaranteeing them money enough to make the race, and even training them in electioneering. The Democratic National Committee could not begin to match such efforts. All those Republican advantages only limited damage at the polls, exacerbated by an unemployment rate that hit 10.8 percent in November.

Republicans would complain that Democrats blunted the effect of population shifts to the sunbelt by the hoary political tactic of the gerrymander (named, not quite fairly, for Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts


in 1811). In states where they controlled both houses of the legislature and the governorship, Democrats drew new district lines that helped them stay in charge by concentrating Republican voters in as few districts as feasible. Republicans did the same where they could, but they controlled fewer (or smaller) states. Thus the GOP gerrymander in Indiana hardly compensated for the Democrats' plan in California.[23] Nevertheless, Republican advantages in campaign resources and plain good luck enabled them to win more seats in the House and Senate than their smashing defeat in the popular vote would normally have allowed.

In 1982, as in 1980, most close Senate races—those decided by 2 percent or less—went to the GOP. The GOP held on to its 54 to 46 edge, although roughly 43,000 votes in five states (Virginia, Rhode Island, Missouri, Nevada, and Vermont) would have given the Senate to the Democrats. In the House, the public voted Democratic 57 to 40 percent, a margin that would normally create a landslide in the districts. Republicans escaped with a loss of "only" twenty-six seats—low given the poor economy, but double the norm and enough to restore Tip O'Neill's reliable majority. In the states, Democrats gained seven governorships for a 34 to 16 edge and gained full control of six more legislatures for a total of thirty-four.

The election gave Tip O'Neill control of the House; without shifting, the balance in the Senate was less secure. Columnist Mark Shields pointed out that the problem for Republicans was not their losers but their winners: winning senators such as Danforth, Durenberger, Chaffee, Stafford, and Weicker had run away from the president to save their skins. "In politics," Shields wrote, "which is the art of the imitative as well as of the possible, that lesson will not be lost on any of the 19 Republican Senators facing reelection campaigns in 1984."[24]

Using his nautical storm theme yet again, Reagan and his party had tried to stave off disaster by urging voters to "stay the course." Sure, the ship of state had drifted into a gale, but that was the fault of the previous skipper and crew. If the ship were steered straight ahead, it would emerge into bright sunlight. On October 13 Ronald Reagan went on television to defend his record. He argued that the cure of economic problems caused by government spending required time. The administration's policies were working on everything except unemployment ("always a lagging indicator in times of recession"). The next recovery would be "built to last." Congress, of course, would have to help by such measures as honoring its "pledge" to save three dollars in outlays for every dollar in new taxes.

But it isn't an easy job, this challenge to rebuild America and renew the American dream…. It can be tempting, listening to some who would go


back to the old ways and the quick fix. But consider the choice. A return to the big spending and big taxing that left us with 21 ½ percent interest rates is no real alternative. A return to double-digit inflation is no alternative. A return to taxing and taxing the American people—that's no alternative. That's what destroyed millions of American jobs. Together we've chosen a new road for America.

In the Democrats' televised response, Senator Donald Riegle of Michigan declared:

The President says, "Stay the course." But Democrats feel that it's time to change the course…. Every month since the President and the Republicans got their program adopted a year and a half ago, unemployment has skyrocketed. Why would the Administration want to stay this course? Maybe because so many of the top officials in the Administration are millionaires who have no understanding of what life is like for most Americans.

Maybe it's because they have their eyes so fixed on the ticker tape on Wall Street that they don't see the growing pile of pink slips and foreclosure notices shutting down Main Street.

The truth is that this Administration has created two courses: one of them a very fast economic track for the few, the other filled with potholes and roadblocks for the rest of us.

That's why staying the course makes sense to them: because they're not paying the price. You are.[25]

Riegle appealed to the traditional Democratic voter. In politics votes, not dollars, counted; for the Democrats the government rather than the economy had been the place of fairness. The party's long-term problem was that Democrats had grown suspicious of that government as well. In 1982, however, the Democrats reclaimed most of their old constituency. Reaganomics might be okay in the abstract, but unemployment in the concrete was terrible.

NBC's election day sample reported that 39 percent of 12,000 respondents believed that Reaganomics has "helped the country," and 40 percent said it had hurt. The president's job performance showed 52 percent disapproval and 48 percent approval. Reagan and Reaganomics did even this well because, another poll showed, 46 percent blamed the recession on "the situation Reagan inherited," while only 33 percent blamed "Reagan and his policies." In the NBC/AP poll, only 6 percent called Reagan's policies a success, but 50 percent declared that they "needed more time."[26]

At the level of theory, voters were not so sure the president was wrong. They liked him personally. With unemployment over 10 percent, however, those closest to joblessness remembered that Democrats were their historic allies. Democrats once again were heavily favored over Republicans as the party to reduce unemployment. Democrats gained most


among Catholics, union members, and those with no college education, all of whom had deserted Jimmy Carter when he engineered a recession.[27] They were mobilized by leaders of unions and civil rights movements; turnout increased for the first time in years as these voters protested the new turn in policy.

Although the depression (so, Louis Harris reported, most voters considered the state of the economy) brought voters back to Democrats, it did not create a groundswell for big new social programs. There was no mandate for an alternative Democratic program. Californian Democratic Senator Alan Cranston, his party's whip, concluded that "this election was a call for moderation and modification, not for a return to old-style liberalism."[28]

Republicans agreed in their own way, seeing the message as not rejecting the premises of Reaganomics but showing their concern about unemployment. Minority Leader Bob Michel narrowly survived the election. "We've listened and learned, and we will take what we've learned back to Washington," Michel told his constituents. "There will have to be some adjustments, some modifications in the things we are doing. No question about it."[29]

Politicians are a creative lot; and any situation, however bleak, is an opportunity for someone. The election of 1982 seemed mainly to guarantee stalemate, but Drew Lewis and James Howard had an answer for legislators who wanted to do something about jobs without rejecting Reaganomics.

A Lame Duck Takes Wing, Sputtering

Drew Lewis was secretary of Transportation; James Howard (D-N.J.) was chairman of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Lewis and Howard wanted to spend money on roads, bridges, and mass transit, key components of the nation's "infrastructure"—the capital plant used to move our goods, treat our waste, or store our water. The projects involved are the traditional subject of "pork-barrel" politics, the "internal improvements" beloved by Henry Clay, that dated back to the building of canals and roads at the beginning of our history.

House Public Works has long been the prototypical pork-barrel committee. Contrary to an overwhelming deluge of political rhetoric, spending on such projects had not grown but—as a proportion of national product—had been halved during the 1960s and 1970s.[30] Governments instead shifted resources from public works to transfer payments for the elderly, to health, to education (due to the baby boom and Sputnik), and to antipoverty programs. These new responsibilities crowded out the old ones as government at all levels met resistance to raising taxes.


Spending that could be postponed, therefore, was; that meant less for highways, bridges, sewers, and the like. It was easy neither for Democrats to explain why, when money was more plentiful, these essential services had been neglected nor for Republicans to explain why, when they were in control, they allowed these building blocks of society to decay.

Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis cared more about highways than sewers. Highway spending had shrunk, in real terms, mainly because the gasoline tax, which financed the Highway Trust Fund, had not been raised since 1959. Lewis felt that after twenty-two years an increase of four or five cents a gallon, from the existing four cents, could be justified. It would be a "user fee"; the people who use the highways pay the gas tax. James Howard and many urban Democrats agreed with the need for higher spending on transportation, but they were less interested in highways. To urban Democrats, cars and highways were middle-class commodities while subways and buses were working-class. Democrats also were uneasy with the gas tax, which was not at all progressive. For years, city representatives had argued that mass transit took pressure off the highway system, that types of transit were fungible, and that cities should be able to choose. Cities had little place to put interstate highways. Many city people bought gasoline, and, perhaps more important, there were lots of urban senators and representatives. By allowing some new gas tax money to go to mass transit, Lewis won liberals' support.

Lewis, Howard, and others worked to bring infrastructure needs to public attention. In 1981 the National Governors Association published a report, "America in Ruins," which claimed that up to two-thirds of the nation's towns and lacked the facilities to accommodate new economic growth.[31] Then Republican and Democratic legislators injected the need for new capital spending into the budget debate. Transportation Department officials, in the unusual position (for this administration) of having a program advocate as secretary, lobbied for new spending. The media also joined the campaign. Newsweek titled its August 2, 1982, issue, "The Decaying of America," beginning its story with a vision of the chaos that would be caused if a main water tunnel were to crack beneath New York City.[32] The publicity campaign succeeded.

Now, recognizing a problem did not mean (especially if you were Ronald Reagan or David Stockman) that the federal government should pay to solve it. It might be left to the states and localities, or it might wait for economic recovery. Even if federal action were demanded, spending and tax increases could be avoided by shifting funds from lesser priorities. Therefore, on May 18, a day after Howard had reported the bill out of his committee, the president turned down Lewis's proposal. Lewis worked to reverse Reagan's decision, but on September 28, in


response to a question at a press conference, the president declared that "unless there's a palace coup and I'm overtaken or overthrown, no, I don't see any necessity" for a gas tax increase.[33]

The election accomplished what the National Journal called "Political Alchemy: 26 fewer Republican seats in the House plus 10.4 percent unemployment transforms an unacceptable gasoline tax into an acceptable user fee."[34] In another bit of alchemy, the infrastructure bill became a jobs bill. Legislators in both houses and both parties saw Lewis's proposal as a job provider that could not be criticized as "make-work." Dan Rostenkowski endorsed the idea; the Speaker promised to send something over to the Senate during the lame-duck session where, "if they don't do anything, the onus is on them."[35] On November 18 Howard Baker announced he and Tip O'Neill would work out a bipartisan jobs bill; on November 22 they endorsed the basic outlines of the Lewis and Howard proposal.

The president wanted private, rather than governmental, spending to lead the way out of the slump. He suggested that the July 1983 tax cut be moved up to January. Howard Baker and Bob Michel immediately told Reagan they did not have the votes.[36] November 23 the president finally jumped on the infrastructure bandwagon: "There's no question but obviously there will be some employment with it," he declared, "but it is not a jobs bill as such. It is a necessity. It's a problem that we have to meet, and we'd be doing this if there were no recession at all."[37] (The president did not explain why the infrastructure bill was a necessity in November and heresy in September.) Robert Dole, skeptical of spending but recognizing the politics, was more straightforward: the transportation package was, he commented, "the best possible jobs bill that could be devised.[38]

In politics, agreement on a proposal may substitute for agreement on purposes. If the objectives of the winning coalition are too diverse, however, they may undermine the initial agreement. With all the major party leaders behind it, the bill seemed likely to pass.[39] Yet conflict about purposes and shortness of time almost enabled opponents to scuttle it.

By early December, Democrats had developed a $5.4 billion plan for "light" public works. The administration then had to explain why one jobs bill was good and required Republican loyalty, while another, which would create jobs more quickly, was bad and required Republican opposition.

On the transportation bill itself, the administration strongly opposed subsidies for mass transit operations; if the users could not pay at least operating (as distinguished from capital or investment) expenses, then the systems probably should not exist. Mass transit proponents argued that users could not pay and that the consequences of letting big city


transit systems go under were too terrible to contemplate. For their part, some Democrats wanted to replace the gas tax increase by repealing part of the third-year tax cut. If either operating subsidies were removed or the income tax cut scaled down, however, the coalition might fall apart. In addition, the bill had myriad consequences disliked by the trucking industry and, therefore, the Teamsters—two powerful lobbies. And it was almost universally condemned by the economics fraternity. New CEA Chairman Martin Feldstein told the president and everyone else who would listen that the gas tax bill would just siphon jobs from the private sector. Democrats Walter Heller, Charles Schultze, and Otto Eckstein joined the chorus of skeptics.[40] These objections helped justify the resistance of a small band of conservatives who felt that nearly all domestic government spending was bad and that new taxes were worse. When he jumped on the infrastructure bandwagon, they believed Ronald Reagan had abandoned his principles.

The growing continuing resolution became the second major controversy of the lame-duck session. Disagreements over defense and federal/ congressional pay threatened to torpedo it.

The defense disputes involved not just money but policy. House liberal leaders wanted to kill at least one of two nuclear aircraft carriers, the B-1 bomber and, most of all, the MX missile. If they could not do so, defense savings would have to come out of combat readiness, like spare parts, and there was little support for that.

All these weapons could be attacked on strategic grounds: the carriers were too vulnerable to attack by missiles; the B-1 as adding little to the B-52s, and outmoded as soon as the "Stealth" bomber came on line; the MX as a potential first-strike weapon, vulnerable to Soviet attack, and therefore destabilizing. They could also be defended: the carriers were the core of the Navy's strategy for projecting power around the world; the B-1 was better than the aging B-52s and more likely to be produced than the Stealth; the MX was a counterforce weapon and, within the bizarre world of "arms control" reasoning, necessary so it could be bargained away.

Liberals lost badly in Appropriations on the carriers and B-1, but $988 million for five production-line MX missiles survived only because three MX opponents were unable to attend the vote. The MX was vulnerable: production funds could be reduced without eliminating research, development, and test money; it was possible to send a cautionary message to the president with that vote; but most important, no one knew where to put the missiles once they began producing them.

MX had gone from the "racetrack"—100 missiles shuttled among 1,000 silos in Nevada and Utah, so the Russians wouldn't know where to shoot—to "dense pack"—all the missiles would be placed in silos fairly


close together so the explosion from knocking out one missile would blow up incoming missiles, thereby protecting the ones that remained in the ground. Members of Congress were skeptical. Charlie Wilson's comment that the pro-MX arguments "sound like PAC-Man" struck a responsive chord. Even three of the five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed what some congressmen called "Dunce Pack."[41]

When Don H. Clausen (R-Calif.) invoked the memory of Pearl Harbor in a traditional argument for preparedness, Carroll Hubbard, Jr., added that "right or wrong, the words 'Here come the Russians' nowadays do not scare Kentuckians half as much as 'Here come the creditors.'"[42] The House accepted Addabbo's amendment to delete funds for MX production, 245 to 176. Both Addabbo and occasional MX critic Les Aspin conceded that, if the basing issue were resolved, the administration would get the missile.[43] For the first time since World War II, however, a house of Congress had even temporarily denied the president a major weapon.

The major controversy over the Transportation Act was about its tax provisions. Trucking interests objected to the truck charges; conservatives objected to any taxes at all; liberals, led by Richard L. Ottinger (D-N. Y.) and Henry Reuss (D-Wis.), wanted to replace the gas tax increase with a cap on the third-year tax cut, in effect repealing that cut in the upper brackets. House leaders concluded that the tax section of the bill was too vulnerable, that any change in it might unravel the whole package, and that the tax section therefore should be offered without allowing amendments. Thus, floor conflict centered on the rule, which was upheld by a close (197 to 194) margin. The bill passed by a 262 to 143 margin that belied the pitfalls it had avoided.

House Democratic leaders still wanted to attach extra jobs spending to the continuing resolution. On December 10 House Appropriations reported out a new CR with a $5.4 billion jobs bill attached, including $1 billion in new programs. In debate on the floor, Silvio Conte reported that Reagan had promised to veto the CR if it included jobs spending. Democratic leaders again saw no reason to back down early. They managed to defeat Conte's motion to delete the jobs sections, 215 to 191. The CR passed by an even narrower 204 to 200 that included 13 votes from an assortment of not overwhelmingly liberal Republicans who may have wanted to go home.

In spite of the jobs battle and a narrow deletion of funds for the controversial Clinch River breeder reactor, the CR's greatest controversy was congressional pay. Here we have to go back a bit because we have been skirting the subject.

Because legislators are normally scared to raise their own pay, they sometimes look for less visible ways to increase their compensation; these


in turn are attacked by members looking for a safe issue with which to get some publicity. In 1981 the Senate managed to sneak through a large tax break for congressional living expenses, replacing the old, insufficient provision with a new, more generous one. Senators also eliminated the existing limit on honoraria from speeches and the like, and House members doubled their own limit on honoraria from $9,100 to $18,200.

It could not last; with members of Congress leading the way, the tax break became the subject of maneuvers on the final FY82 CR that continued throughout the battle on the "urgent" supplemental that finally passed in July. Senators pushed to return to the old tax provision as irritated House members tried to blackmail the senators out of that by reimposing the limit on honoraria. In the final version of the July supplemental, the tax deduction limit won out.

In August Senator Stevens, who headed the Senate subcommittee with responsibility for federal pay issues, tried to tack a byzantine pay raise maneuver onto the reconciliation. He wanted raises for not only his colleagues but also the higher civil servants whose pay was held down by members' inability to raise their own salaries. It failed after a revolt in the House. "Obviously we are in an election period, and it is not a good time to talk about these things," commented Vic Fazio (D-Calif.). The "cap" on salaries, however, was due to expire at the end of FY82. Fazio, chairman of the legislative branch subcommittee of appropriations, made sure that battles were postponed by extending the cap to December 17 in the first CR. He then began a quiet campaign to raise the cap during the lame-duck session. The GAO reported that, if the cap lapsed, under the existing comparability system members would be entitled to a 27.2 percent pay increase.

When the second CR came to the floor, Fazio had left out the pay cap. Two amendments—one by Fazio limiting the pay raise to 15 percent and one by Bob Traxler (D-Mich.) reimposing the cap—were in order. The Fazio amendment passed without comment. Then Traxler's amendment was defeated on a tie vote, but it wasn't easy. The vote was allowed to run well beyond the normal fifteen-minute period. Even the Speaker voted against Traxler. The Congressional Quarterly Almanac reported:

Finally, with the amendment ahead 208-207, lame duck Robert K. Dornan, R-Calif., voted no, and the amendment failed on a 208-208 tie. It was the vote of Dornan and the other 70 lame ducks who voted on the Traxler amendment that sealed its fate. Lame ducks opposed the amendment by 2-1, 24-47. While Republicans overall supported Traxler, 121-65, the 48 Republican lame ducks who were voting opposed his amendment, 21-27.[44]

Lame ducks, of course, did not have to worry about public opprobrium, therefore giving a parting gift to their more "responsive" colleagues.


Any issue that can unite Tip O'Neill and "B-1 Bob" Dornan is bound to have unusual permutations; more were to come. In order to make the raise more palatable—and to create a bargaining chip with the Senate—the House took the precaution of limiting honoraria to 50 percent of pay. Senators had more prestige than representatives and could make more money from speeches. Naturally, when the CR reached Senate appropriations both the pay and honoraria provisions were deleted. Final action would wait for the conference. But there would be no conference until the CR passed the Senate, which, strangely enough, brings us back to the transportation act. Anybody want to be a congressman? The job is so simple! And rewarding!

Back to the Senate

When the Senate began to debate the transportation act on December 10, Senators Helms, Nickles, and Humphrey filibustered against Howard Baker's motion to consider the bill. On December 13 the Senate invoked cloture 75 to 13, ending debate on the motion to consider while allowing consideration to begin. Aided by the need to consider a raft of amendments, some germane and some not, opponents then began a not-quite-filibuster. Ronald Reagan requested they halt the delaying tactics.[45] The senators refused. Howard Baker hesitated to move for cloture again because foreclosing amendments might anger potential supporters.

After a series of amendments, up and down, Carl Levin (D-Mich.) moved to extend the period of unemployment benefits. Not exactly a germane subject, but this was the Senate. A motion to table lost, 47 to 50. Opposed to the cost of the benefit extension, GOP leaders decided that maybe cloture was not such a bad idea after all. Democrats then voted against cloture, even though they wanted to pass the transportation act to force a vote on unemployment benefits. Back at square one, Robert Dole had to compromise with Levin. Under Senate rules another two days had to pass before another cloture vote could be taken; Helms and his allies therefore filibustered.[46]

Because he was afraid that everybody would go home after the CR was passed, Howard Baker wanted the gas tax bill passed before action was taken on the CR. "We're going to pass [the gas tax bill] even if that means that those who are filibustering will shut down the government," he declared.[47] That probably was fine with Helms and his allies. So on December 16, Baker, blinking first, pulled the transportation act off the Senate floor so as to work on the new CR. The old one would expire the next day, but, because it was a Friday, Baker and friends figured they had through Sunday (December 19) to pass the new CR.

Everything was going smoothly, if slowly, until the Senate neared a


final vote on Saturday night, December 18. Then John East (R-N.C.), responding to an announcement that the Senate would return to the gas tax after disposing of the CR, began a filibuster on the CR. Cloture could not be invoked for two days, so Baker took two steps. First, the Senate appointed conferees to begin negotiations with the House the next morning, even though the Senate had yet to pass its version. Second, Baker sent the senators home to sleep, staying alone in the chamber to listen to Senator East. In the early morning hours, East made a procedural error, and Baker regained control of the floor. On Sunday evening, as the conferees were actually meeting, the Senate approved its version of the CR 63 to 31.[48]

The president promised to veto the bill if it included a jobs plan; House Democrats were adamant about the MX. Perhaps Reagan could have been talked into accepting jobs in return for getting MX. The new bias against spending won out; the conferees chose no spending and no MX until the dispute over the mode of basing was settled and there was some place to put it. Total defense spending was set at $231.6 billion—$4 billion below the budget resolution and $18 billion below the president's request—a 9 percent real increase.

House members got a raise, and senators did not; but House members' outside incomes were restricted, and senators' were not. Conferees agreed that the CR would expire on September 30, 1982 (end of the fiscal year), meaning that no more action would be required. Senator Hatfield reported that total outlays in the bill might be around $2 billion above the budget resolution. Everyone knew that no one knew for sure. Stockman was quiet about it.[49]

The only question left was whether the pay deal and MX would scuttle the conference report. In the House not enough members requested a roll call, so the CR sailed through on a voice vote. The filibusterers were quiet in the Senate. National Security Adviser William Clark lobbied for a veto because of the MX. But the White House Legislative Strategy Group recommended that the bill be signed because Republican leaders predicted that a veto would be overridden.[50] Jack Edwards (R-Ala.) told reporters that he had called the White House and "told them that if they wanted to see the roof come off the Capitol they could veto this bills."[51] Silvio Conte, who had led the House fight against the jobs bill (and had no use for the MX) warned, "If he vetoes, he'll get a jobs bill like he never saw before … and he won't get what he wants on the MX missile … and I'd lead the fight."[52]

The president signed the CR on Tuesday, December 21, coyly congratulating Congress for having "completed action on a budget for the full fiscal year before final adjournment." If wrapping most discretionary spending into a CR, while operating under a budget resolution with


economic projections (and thus deficit totals) that were wildly out of whack, qualifies as "completing action," then Reagan may have been correct. Congress would gladly have done the same the year before if he had let them; the president, not they, had changed. "On balance," the president said, "the resolution is a significant achievement in our efforts to control discretionary spending."[53] What you want depends on what you can get![54]

As the CR awaited the president's decision, the Senate returned to work on the Transportation Assistance Act. It required five days and two more cloture votes, but the Senate finally passed both the bill and the conference report. At the battle's end, Reagan personally offered senators rides home on air force planes if they would stay in town long enough to invoke cloture and pass the bill. Five took him up on it; "that's what airplanes are for," commented Russell Long.[55]

The 97th Congress

At long last, the 97th Congress came to an end. The lame-duck session had passed a major piece of legislation, but few were happy with the experience. An exhausted Howard Baker agreed with defeated Jesse Helms that the session should never have been held.[56]

Members of Congress had traveled a long way from the dramatic Reagan victories of early 1981; the president's budget had been virtually disregarded; Congress had tied itself in knots. Arguments could be made that each had been successful in 1982. Reagan had won a big military buildup; in the midst of a recession domestic spending had been increased far less than one might expect; and, though forced to raise taxes, he got others to take most of the blame. Democrats at least had stopped the Reagan Revolution; budget balancers had won a major deficit reduction package. Yet no faction was satisfied.

Pragmatic though he could be, Reagan still had to view rejection of his spending cuts as a defeat. From his standpoint TEFRA was a betrayal; his side had been snookered. Preventing new programs was not so great a victory. Even in 1975 facing huge Democratic majorities, Gerald Ford had successfully vetoed a jobs bill in the midst of a recession. Reagan did lock in the military buildup; his high-ball strategy certainly helped. But the final figures had more to do with senatorial than with White House preferences.

Congress had failed to resolve the disjunctions within its own preferences on taxes, spending, and the deficit. The leaders of the Republican Senate had succeeded in pursuing their own version of responsibility: a tax hike, large but scaled-down defense increases, the status quo on poor people's programs. They had failed only on the great


universal entitlements. Still, senatorial preferences, like everyone else's, did not add up to anywhere near a balanced budget.

Outside analysts might call the events of 1982 a reasonable package of compromises, crediting Senate Republicans with the lead role. By their own standards, however, all participants had done poorly. And now the grizzly bear of political animals, social security, was bound to awaken after its election-year hibernation. Soon the government would have to act to ensure the solvency of the giant pension system. Policy would have to be made with a Congress at least as ideologically divided as the 97th had been. Moreover, the deficit would not go away.

Republican Senator Slade Gorton of Washington summarized the situation nicely: "1981 was the Year of the President. 1982 was the Year of the Senate Republicans. 1983," he concluded, referring to a well-publicized film, "is the Year of Living Dangerously."


A Triumph of Governance: Social Security

The social security program was going broke. That means revenues from payroll taxes (the FICA deductions from paychecks) dedicated to Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) were smaller than the amount being paid to the elderly. Originally, the system had a cushion of budget authority, to be called upon when benefits exceeded revenues; by 1982, however, that was nearly gone. Unlike the budget-deficit "crisis," social security's difficulties were concrete and calculable: by a specific date, some 31.6 million checks would be held up. The federal government was in danger of defaulting on what is, save for the national defense, its biggest commitment.

Two years of social security politics did not create hope for a settlement. Democrats felt that Republicans exaggerated the problem, wanting to cut social security, not out of concern for the elderly, but as part of their ideological attack on "big government." Republicans felt that Democrats were engaging in unmerciful demagoguery, beating up on the GOP while failing to acknowledge real problems. Each view had a measure of truth. Let us now quickly review the dimensions of the problem to set the stage for the last-minute rescue.

After the May 1981 debacle, and after the president was convinced not to include social security in his "September offensive," Congress, with Reagan's support, passed a bill to restore the minimum benefit, which had been eliminated in the 1981 reconciliation. OASI pensions are just part, though the largest part, of the insurance system funded by payroll taxes under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act. FICA also includes unemployment insurance and the disability and health (medicare) trust funds.[1] Because disability and health funds were still in the black, the Senate, in its version of the minimum benefit bill, provided authority for OASI to borrow from its companion funds for the next ten years.


But Barber Conable, Republican leader on Ways and Means, insisted that this borrowing authority must expire at the end of 1982. He hoped that such an imminent date would encourage other action in the lame-duck session after the 1982 election, when at least some portion of Congress no longer would have to worry about voter retribution.[2] the National Commission, on which Conable sat, would report in November, and, in the face of imminent default, Congress would have to act.

The National Commission first met in February 1982. Chairman Alan Greenspan, former CEA chair and future Federal Reserve chair, joked that the fifteen members might produce fifteen minority reports.[3] President Reagan's appointees included three Republican business types—Greenspan, Robert Beck, and Mary Foley Fuller—along with conservative Democrats Alexander Trowbridge (head of the National Association of Manufacturers) and former congressman Joe Waggoner of Louisiana. Howard Baker appointed Finance Chairman Bob Dole, social security subcommittee chairman William Armstrong (R-Colo.), and John Heinz (R-Pa.), chair of the Special Aging Committee. Like Baker, Bob Michel appointed his party's committee leaders—Conable and subcommittee ranking member Representative William Archer. Thus, Reagan had chosen five conservatives, while Congressional Republicans selected a set of committee leaders divided between those who staunchly opposed revenue increases, Armstrong and Archer, and those who might accept a mix of revenues and benefit cuts. Democrats appointed liberals, passing over almost all committee leaders. Robert Byrd appointed Senator Moynihan, the subcommittee ranking member, and Lane Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO. Speaker O'Neill appointed Claude Pepper, former Representative Martha Keys, and Robert Ball. Ball, former commissioner of social security and O'Neill's real representative, had helped organize Save Our Security, a coalition of interest groups. He had been in the program since the beginning and was the party's expert. Ball's expertise was matched by that of Robert Myers, the National Commission's staff director; Myers, former chief actuary, at the time was deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Myers was the Republicans' expert on the program.

The Commission thus knew enough and represented virtually everybody. Conservatives could outvote liberals, but that didn't mean much because no agreement rejected by Ball, Kirkland, Pepper, and Moynihan was about to pass the House.

Before the Commission could do much, social security became part of the larger budget fight. Efforts by a few participants to cut a deal under cover of the Gang-of-17 negotiations broke up in animosity. How much to cut COLAs, how much in taxes the president would allow in


return, and, especially, who would take the blame were the issues over which the Gang of 17 collapsed during Reagan and O'Neill's acrimonious meeting.

The Gang's collapse put Domenici out front, where, the reader may recall, he talked Reagan into the $40 billion social security "plug" in his First Resolution for FY83. That, too, was blown out of the air quickly. When the National Commission next met, the result was, in Time 's words, "a partisan shooting match, with cameras rolling. Senator Moynihan charged that the administration had 'terrorized' older people into thinking that they won't get their Social Security." Republican Senator Armstrong declared that "we have done everything to avoid making this a partisan issue"; then he blamed Democrats for the $40 billion cutback proposal.[4] After that dustup, commission meetings sank into somnolence; congressional Republicans stopped making dangerous proposals; and attention shifted to the election.

It is hard to disentangle the social security issue from the recession and from "fairness" in order to assess its independent effect on elections. Paul Light's analysis makes three important points. First, many Republicans who survived the election did so, particularly in the Senate, only by very slim margins. Therefore, they were nervous about any issue that could anger the public. Second, to defeat them at the polls, social security did not have to work directly, as if the Republicans had done something to harm it; social security had only to symbolize the entire Democratic argument that Reaganomics was unfair. Third, Republicans believed social security had cost them dearly in lost seats.[5] A well-positioned lobbyist summed up the political situation:

By the time the November election was over, Baker, Darman and that crowd were in charge of the issue. This is an overstatement but from conversations then it was clear that they would take their own grandmothers off social security to get a deal with the Democrats. They were in the trough of a depression, the President's popularity was at bottom, they had lost their House majority, and they wanted it done, behind them! The polls showed that if anything went wrong with social security the president would get blamed.

Yes. And clearly something could go wrong by July. Pragmatists in the White House believed that, as one told us, "the only way we Republicans can deal with social security is if the leadership of the Democrats is on board." That gave the Democrats an advantage. But it didn't necessarily mean that the president would go along with a deal.

The administration's best scenario was that a solution—that could be enacted in the lame-duck session—would emerge from the National Commission's meetings on November 11–13. But that would not happen:


the session already had enough to handle; the Commission was too divided, and probably too large, to forge an agreement; and the Speaker wanted his twenty-six new Democrats in place before reforms were considered.

The Commission did, however, define the scope of the problem, an action surely necessary to end the extensive disagreement over its seriousness, which depended on the economy's performance. In 1972 the Social Security Administration (SSA) had estimated 15 percent inflation and 12 percent real wage growth from 1973 to 1977. Those assumptions justified indexing benefits to inflation after a 20 percent increase. Unfortunately, inflation turned out to be 41 percent, and real wages rose only by 1 percent. In response, President Carter and Congress put together a rescue package that changed the calculations of some benefits (the formula had been more generous than intended) and scheduled payroll-tax increases at intervals until 1990. Assuming 28 percent inflation and 13 percent real wage growth during 1978–1982, the system would have been quite healthy; but unfortunately inflation was 60 percent and real wages had shrunk by 7 percent. The discrepancy was more than enough to swamp social security again.[6]

As a matter of policy and prudence, this experience might have caused participants to err on the side of pessimism. Yet liberals objected: to define the problem as drastic served the conservative agenda—radical reform as opposed to incremental change. And conservatives were embarrassed because pessimistic forecasts would contradict the administration's economic scenarios. The SSA responded in 1982 by creating a range of scenarios, of which alternative 3 was very pessimistic (shrinking real wages through 1984 and barely any wage growth for the rest of the decade), alternative 2A was the administration's FY83 economic forecast, and alternative 2B represented the actuaries' fairly pessimistic best guess (a weak recovery in 1982, fairly similar to the low-ball forecast on which Martin Feldstein would insist for the FY84 budget).

Alternative 2A predicted an $82 billion shortfall for OASI from 1983 to 1989. At that point, the OASI payroll tax would rise from 9.5 percent to 10.6 percent (half each from employers and employees), and the system would stop losing money. It was not good but not so terrible, certainly no reason to make big cuts. By November 1982, however, alternative 2A was not looking credible; it predicted only 8.9 percent unemployment for 1982. As Senator Moynihan, who had downplayed the crisis, later commented, "There was a point when we thought you might squeeze by, but when unemployment went to 11 percent, there was no point kidding yourself."[7] Greenspan, Staff Director Myers, and most Republican commission members had no stake in the administration's forecast; they were willing to go with something like alternative 2B, which


assumed a $184 billion OASI shortage through 1989, larger than the disability surplus.[8]

When the National Commission met, Greenspan suggested they look for savings in a range from $150 to $200 billion, and the members agreed. In these matters, involving huge sums, accuracy plus or minus $25 billion is the most one can hope for. The shortfall was around 14 percent of projected costs of the program for 1983 to 1989. The commission agreed also on the size of the system's long-range problem: 1.8 percent of taxable payroll. To comprehend that estimate requires an understanding of the social security trust fund.

The most important thing to know about the financing mechanism of social security is its pay-as-you-go system. What is paid in during a given fiscal year as contributions goes out that same year as benefits. That is all there is to it. Everything else is misleading—everything.

Social security looks like insurance: individual and employer make equal contributions; the worker collects after retirement. He or she pays into, and benefits are paid out of, a trust fund. The trust fund pays benefits each year out of that year's contributions plus any accumulated balance. If benefits exceed contributions, the balance declines. From 1975 through 1981, the OASDI balance fell from $44 billion to $25 billion.[9] If contributions outpace benefits, as during most of the system's history, the balance rises.

Benefits are shaped by eligibility rules, inflation rates, and demographics. Contributions are shaped by tax rates, taxable income definitions, wage and employment levels, and population. (Only wage income is taxable; in 1982 up to the first $32,400 could be taxed. The rationale for this cap is the insurance principle: higher contributions could be justified only by higher benefits. But as it stands, higher-income participants receive a smaller benefit relative to contributions than do lower income; thus, the system is progressive.) If people live longer, social security costs more. If fewer people are born, there are fewer wage earners to contribute.

Over the long run, population factors have the largest influence on the relation of contributions to benefits. In 1955, when the system was young, there were 8.6 workers per beneficiary. A 4 percent payroll tax was sufficient to cover benefits. By 1982, with 3.2 workers per beneficiary, about 12 percent was needed. The ratio was expected to remain stable as the baby-boom generation began to dominate the work force. After the year 2000, however, this group will start retiring, to be replaced by their children, the "baby-bust" generation. By 2030, under the alternative 2B assumptions, there would be only 2 workers per beneficiary. If benefits were to be maintained at the same level, contributions would have to equal 16.8 percent of the taxable payroll. Because existing law


set taxes at 12.4 percent, the system would run massive deficits. If the pessimistic alternative 3, which predicted even lower birthrates, were true, contributions of 23.9 percent of payroll would be needed. Nearly half of all benefits would have to come from the principal of the trust fund.[10] Dollar amounts involved would depend on inflation; over the period, deficits would be in the trillions. And, like all complex calculations, things could turn out a lot better—or worse.

Peter Peterson, former Commerce secretary and organizer of the "Bipartisan Budget Appeal," was among the many conservative critics who used long-term projections to argue for major changes. Peterson wanted a series of reforms that would lower benefits, particularly for people with higher incomes.[11] To his ideological right, the Heritage Foundation reported that "the only way to cure the fiscal dilemma of OASI is through fundamental redesign of the social security system … [converting it into] an actuarially sound individual annuity program."[12] Contributions would be invested in a fund tied to the stock market's performance or some other reflection of the private economy. Ronald Reagan wanted to make the program voluntary. The program's defenders felt that the whole notion of such long-term projections was a mite unreasonable. "The feeling that we must make final decisions now for the year 2035," said Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution, "would be rather as if we had expected Calvin Coolidge to make binding policy for Americans of the '80s."[13]

Polls showed that the proportion of the public who had "only a little" or "no" confidence in the ability of the system to pay benefits when they retired rose from 49 percent in 1979 to 75 percent in 1982.[14] "My children are concerned with whether they ought to contribute," said Dan Rostenkowski. "They're entitled to doubt whether there's going to be solvency when they expect to retire."[15] The critics argued that these fears presaged "generational warfare." In fact, the young supported current benefits at least as strongly as did the recipients.

Though the critics' crocodile tears over lack of support for the program were unjustified, proponents of the program felt that the long-run political consequences of long-term deficit projections might not be so minimal. If they could reduce the size of the long-term "problem" without reducing benefits much, it was worth doing.

"Fixing the problem," according to virtually everybody, meant combining reduced benefits and an enlarged trust fund, so that during bad years the system could live off its "savings." The National Commission defined the target for a long-term solution, not as the shortage in any particular year, such as 2035, but rather as the average shortage over the entire period from 1982 to 2056. According to the alternative 2B projections, this would be 1.82 percent of taxable payroll.[16]


A difficulty with all this went unidentified: the "trust fund" is a mirage . To withdraw money from the fund, the government must cash in its assets. The assets, however, are government bonds. To pay off those bonds, the government must either sell more bonds or raise revenue through taxes—which is exactly what it would do if there were no trust fund at all. Merely building up the fund per se makes no difference.

The fund would matter only if it held assets in the private economy: stocks, bank accounts, buildings, whatever. Then cashing in the fund would reduce the need to tax or to borrow. But that possibility poses all sorts of problems: A fund of this sort, large enough to fund social security, would have to own a substantial part of the U.S. economy. Who would control the fund? Or, whom would the fund control? Few politicians have ever seriously suggested that the trust fund hold assets to make it meaningful because this would raise directly the thorny issue of relations between the public and private sectors. What would happen, for instance, if social security were made up of private annuities invested in the stock market and a "Black Monday" caused a great loss in value? Not only would government be damaged, it might well either feel obliged or be compelled to make up the loss. To the cost of employee-employer contributions, therefore, would be added the price of government emergency funding when the market declined. This is not to say that building up the fund has no effect; it just doesn't mean what it is supposed to mean. Each year's surplus, made up of real cash contributions, reduces the unified budget deficit. It thus would reduce federal borrowing, increase the national savings rate, and, by that logic, increase long-run productivity and growth.

But, as far as cumulating resources over time is concerned, the trust fund is empty. Think of it this way: when, in a given year, there is a shortfall (i.e., payments exceed contributions) the government makes up the difference by borrowing, taxing, or printing money. At some future time, some people think that shortfalls would be made up by cumulation of past social security surpluses. Not really true. Treasury bonds or other IOUs from one part of the government to the other might total in the trillions, but these pieces of paper are not claims on private sector assets. Consequently, the government must still make up a shortfall by borrowing, taxing, or printing money.

Social security is funded annually. Consequently, the actual shortfall in, say, 2035 could be ameliorated only by changing the planned benefits and contributions in 2035. Pretending for the moment that those could be forecast (i.e., that alternative 2B projections were accurate), what would a solution involve?

In 2035, according to 2B, OASDI would represent 6.05 percent of GNP. In 1982 it was 5.16 percent of GNP.[17] What, one wonders, was


the big deal? If the economy were worse, social security would be just one of many problems. True, the actual burden on workers would increase by more than the change in proportion of GNP. The percent of taxable payroll, an increase from 11.78 percent in 1982 to 17.02 percent in 2035, reflects the fact that when there are fewer workers their wages make up (or are assumed to make up) a smaller portion of GNP.[18] Anyone who wanted to deal with these more worrisome taxable payroll figures thus would have to adjust the ratio of beneficiaries to workers. More children or more immigrants (the latter being far easier to supply) would do the trick, but this was beyond the scope of social security legislation. Instead, as Pickle had suggested in 1981, Congress could raise the retirement age.

The whole argument about the long run was decidedly unreal. The problem was not so big; the solution of building up the trust fund was no solution at all; the most relevant factor, the supply of workers, was not even on the policy map. To complete the unreality, the rhetoric of panic largely ignored one area of really frightening numbers, much worse than for OASDI—medicare. Under alternative 2B, Hospital Insurance (HI) costs were projected to rise from 1.30 percent of GNP in 1982 to 3.97 percent in 2035—more than double the increase in OASDI. The increase was 9.1 percent of taxable payroll.[19] Of course, projections of medical costs were unreliable, involving many more factors than pensions do. And, since the short-term crisis for medicare wasn't expected until, say, 1990, that program was not on the table.

Why, one might ask, did the liberals not simply scoff at the long-term problem? Though we can only speculate, there is a reasonable answer: in order to say that the whole argument (about fund solvency and an average shortfall of 1.8 percent of taxable payroll) made no sense, liberals would have to admit that the insurance notion and the fund itself were mythical. That was too big a risk to take. All in all, some ostensible fix, even if it cut benefits from where they would have been thirty years down the road, was safer. Robert Ball explained that public confidence required "a plan that would result in the Board of Trustees saying officially that the program was in full actuarial balance both in the short and long-term."[20]

Although both sides agreed on the size of the problem, they were far from agreed on its solution. The fundamental, liberal-conservative, disagreement was the same as that for the rest of the budget: tax hikes versus spending cuts. Conservatives wanted all the latter, liberals all the former, and centrists a mix. On November 11, Senator John Heinz of Missouri, the most centrist of the Republican negotiators, suggested a 50-50 split. Republicans, however, were avoiding specific proposals. Dole figured that proposals to cut benefits were politically dangerous.[21]


On November 12 the Democrats proposed advancing the 1990 tax increase to 1984, which would add $132 billion; tax increases on self-employed workers would mean another $18 billion. (If you don't have an employer, there is no employer contribution. Rather than have no social security for the self-employed, the system would charge them a higher individual contribution—though not as much, even after the fix, as the regular employee and employer contributions combined.) Two other provisions fit the long tradition in social security financing of increasing short-term revenues by including in the program a new group, which would begin paying immediately but begin collecting only decades into the future. These provisions included (1) federal employees within social security (worth $21 billion) and (2) newly hired state and local employees (garnering another $13 billion).[22]

Coverage expansion, convenient as this sounded, was not so easy to achieve. State and local coverage might turn out to be unconstitutional. If made mandatory, social security contributions might be defined as a tax on state and local governments—explicitly forbidden. Federal employee coverage had been urged by social security administrators and resisted by employees since the 1940s. This group already had a pension system with larger contributions that provided larger benefits. If federal employees had to join social security, they would be contributing to both systems, paying more but not receiving more. Employee unions objected strenuously and had been successful for a generation.[23] The AFL-CIO, a strong proponent of social security in all other matters, had backed its federal unions.

"Extending coverage was a given," recalls one lobbyist, "except for the AFL-CIO, which did not want to admit to its federal sectors that it was going to cave." Labor could live with that so long as the rest of the deal was good enough. The liberals wanted Reagan to sign first before they went to O'Neill; then Reagan would look like he was initiating large tax increases. The offer was rejected.

On Saturday, November 13, liberals tried again, suggesting that state and local coverage be replaced by a three-month delay in the date of the COLA. "Delay" may sound temporary, but it was really a permanent cut because, for three months each year, benefits would be at a lower rate (without inflation adjustment) than they would otherwise have been. Over seven years, benefits would be about $23 billion lower.[24]

The Speaker approved this package, which included concessions from both Lane Kirkland (federal employees) and Claude Pepper (COLAs). Yet the conservatives weren't interested in what was still overwhelmingly a revenue solution.[25] Nor was Rostenkowski who, in an open letter to his House colleagues and the commissioners on November 12, asserted his committee's prerogative to draft a solution and expressed skepticism about a payroll-tax increase during a deep recession.[26]


Just as with the Gang of 17, National Commission members' opinions were secondary to whether those who were not there—Reagan, O'Neill, Rostenkowski—could agree. The principals were not talking, and the commissioners did not have the power to bargain out an agreement. The formal sessions of November 11–13 ended without issue. A last meeting on December 10, 1982, was quick and desultory.

What was needed was not formal negotiations but a way for the two sides to feel out, test, and influence each other. Commission member and nominal Democrat Alexander Trowbridge was a Washington veteran who knew all the players. After the November meetings, he began developing packages, talking to other commissioners, asking their positions, moving toward John Heinz's target of the 50-50 split between revenue increases and benefit cuts. Trowbridge had no commitments from anyone, but he created an impression of movement. That gave Stockman something to take to the president. Stockman asked Reagan if Trowbridge's latest plan—$80 billion in taxes; $50 billion in a sixmonth COLA delay; $32 billion in coverage expansions; and an increase in the retirement long term, to sixty-seven—would be acceptable.[27] Reagan and authorized Stockman to begin secret negotiations with the commission to get them to report such a package.

Stockman had to negotiate with the liberal leaders; then the White House and the Speaker would try to bring along the rest of the commission. In essence, the president's appointees were replaced by the core White House legislative team—James Baker, Richard Darman, Kenneth Duberstein, and Stockman. The negotiations had to be kept secret: because failure might produce red faces; because interested parties might not keep quiet; and because the Democrats generally distrusted Stockman. The White House team began with personal contact between Stockman and Moynihan, his old mentor, and between Darman and Ball, who knew each other from HEW in the early 1970s. Ball made clear that the Trowbridge plan would not do but did not close the door. The old friends, Stockman and Moynihan, were rebuilding trust. When the Senate reconvened, Moynihan enlisted Dole for "one more try" at negotiating a package on behalf of the commission.

On January 4 Dole, Greenspan, and Moynihan met to arrange the secret talks. By adding Conable, Ball, and the four White House representatives, they had included one member from each of the commission's factions—House and Senate majority and minority and the chairman. Members with strong interest-group or ideological positions—such as Pepper, Kirkland, and Armstrong—were excluded. Meetings began the next day.

Because no staff were allowed, Stockman and Ball were the key players. They knew the most. Everyone understood that President Reagan and Speaker O'Neill held the real votes. Each side used the argument


that its own extremists had to be placated, both to force compromise from the other camp and to emphasize that they were all reasonable, in this together.

The meetings could not stay secret if for no other reason than that participants couldn't judge what would play in Peoria without doing some checking beyond the closed doors. The fourteen-million member (according to 1982 records) American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the AFL-CIO, and such congressional powers as Rostenkowski had to be sounded out. On January 8 Senator Armstrong demanded to be included; Dole had no way to refuse. Armstrong, finding too much support for tax increases, went public and threatened to rally interest groups (including plausibly, the AFL-CIO) against "a massive tax increase."[28] The other negotiators retaliated by truing to distract Armstrong in the meetings and by keeping him away from Ball and Stockman.

Agreement on cost was crucial, particularly in order to put a price on a COLA delay. Stockman, who wanted as big a package as possible in real dollars (to reduce the deficit), jawboned the Democrats into accepting lower inflation assumptions; this meant that any COLA delay would be estimated to raise less. Democrats, therefore, would have to accept other provisions or a longer delay. The Democrats went along—in part because they were not sure they could win a spitting match over assumptions and in part because, on this one, Stockman seemed right.[29]

After agreeing on economics, the National Commission had to reach its target (still between $150 and $200 billion over seven years) in the most politically acceptable way. That meant allocating as little pain as possible in the present, making no part of the package so big that a major player would feel obligated to defect. Whereas Trowbridge had four major provisions, Stockman and Ball moved toward a much more complex package. The parts were smaller; there were a few side payments, provisions benefiting one faction or another so it would complain less; and many provisions were beyond the ken of most nonexperts. Obscurity might reduce the political heat.

"The principle of equality was very important to the White House," Paul Light quotes one Democrat as explaining, "but if we had gone to a strict 50-50 split we would have needed $80 billion in benefit cuts. That was simply not acceptable to us."[30] A six-month COLA delay and a two-stage acceleration of the previously scheduled tax increases yielded $40 billion each, a 50-50 split. But Democrats did not want to yield more benefits. "The key," Light's source recalled, "was to go outside either pure taxes or benefits, and find some new area of agreement." Democrats found it by taxing benefits.

Social security benefits had never been taxed, partly on the grounds that people were just getting their own money back. People who received


social security alone would not be taxed much anyway; their incomes would be too low. Millions of retirees, however, did have other income. The negotiators agreed that

beginning with 1984, 50% of OASDI benefits should be considered as taxable income for income-tax purposes for persons with Adjusted Gross Income (before including therein any OASDI benefits) of $20,000 if single and $25,000 if married. The proceeds from this taxation, as estimated by the Treasury Department, would be credited to the OASDI trust funds.[31]

Because the tax money was to be fed back into the trust fund, taxing benefits really meant a backdoor cut in benefits for more affluent recipients.

Ball and the Speaker had long been willing to tax benefits. Stockman agreed, for reasons of different principle. The provision was worth $30 billion in the short term and more in the long run. Yet taxing benefits for higher, not lower, incomes threatened the premise that social security was a program for everybody. Instead, social security would become an income-transfer program, creating class divisions that might threaten its political support. In the short run, Republicans could object because the tax was a cut to mostly Republican constituencies. It was also vehemently opposed by AARP, largest of the aging lobbies. AARP is as much a giant buying club as a political group; its power would be diluted by the need not to alienate any portion of its fourteen million members (as of 1982). Yet fourteen million is many voters, voters who were better off and more active than most. In short, taxing benefits involved risks; at the least, neither side wanted to lead the way walking that plank. But the risks were worth taking because the provision provided $30 billion that either side could claim as a victory in the scorekeeping of revenue increases versus benefit cuts.[32]

Coverage expansions, COLA cuts, tax-rate increases, and taxation of benefits would yield $130 billion. Another $18 billion was found through increasing the tax on self-employed persons, who previously had paid 75 percent of the combined employer/employee rate. It seemed fair to have them pay the full rate; after all, they got full benefits. But, because corporations deducted payroll contributions from taxable income, thus reducing the corporate income tax, negotiators chose to allow self-employed individuals to do the same. As a result, the $18 billion in extra trust fund revenues would reduce general revenues by $12 billion, as the self-employed claimed larger deductions. The provision was a veiled transfer of $12 billion from general revenues to the trust fund.

The last large part of the package was another disguised general revenue transfer. Before 1957, soldiers had received social security credit for their service without paying into the fund. Current law required


contributions from the general fund each year to cover these "excess" benefits; however, someone came up with the bright idea of crediting all future payments as if they were received together right then and there. The "proper" amount of such payments was, one negotiator recalls, "absolutely arbitrary." It was raised to $18 billion during the last days in response to concerns, particularly from AARP, that the package was not big enough to assure the public that social security was safe.[33] One lobbyist called the "lump sum military wage credit" (the official name) "the tooth fairy." But this money under the pillow was crucial because it was immediate, "a quick one-time infusion to get through 1983–84, to jump-start" the plan. It meant the system was "fixed," in the first year, without cutting or raising taxes. Without it the system would have gone bust in July 1983.

Agreement on the final package was not reached until midday on Saturday, January 15. In addition to the six main proposals, it included a raft of smaller ones.[34] The package, totaling $168 billion for 1983–1989, provided only two-thirds of the long-term target. Although the five core commissioners were agreed, others objected to various parts of the package. In spite of the COLA increase, Claude Pepper went along. His support was essential not only because of his leadership of the elderly but also because, in the new Congress, as chairman of the Rules Committee he would be able to block action. Armstrong and Archer, however, resisted both the tax hikes and the general revenues. They hoped also to get business representatives to object. On the afternoon of January 15, however, President Reagan telephoned Mary Fuller, Robert Beck, and Alexander Trowbridge, strongly urging them to go along. "It was tremendous pressure," a negotiator recalled, and the three complied. After a polite minuet that ended with the Speaker, the president, and the commission simultaneously committed, the commission endorsed the package, 12 to 3. Armstrong, Archer, and ex-representative Waggoner dissented.

For those most interested in reducing the size of government, the package was a defeat. Taxation of benefits did not reduce intrusive government; only the COLA cut was acceptable. It was a victory for those most interested in maintaining benefits. For the needy even the COLA cut was offset by a change in rules for Supplementary Security Income (SSI). In terms of ideology, the Speaker came off better than the president. Yet Reagan was getting the issue off the table; and if benefit taxation were viewed as a benefit cut, then the real cut in benefits ($70 billion) was greater than the increase in taxes ($58 billion). Reagan was less purist, more willing to take the best he could get, than were some of his allies.

From the standpoint of Reagan's aides, the best thing about the deal was its completion. "Once we stopped being revolutionaries and started


being system conservers," a Reaganite recalled, "it was a tremendous accomplishment." "We even cut social security," said one proud Democratic politician. "We just didn't say we were doing it. Everyone agreed to say we weren't doing what we were doing." They were showing that they could govern, that reasonable legislators (themselves) could find solutions to difficult problems. But the fact that they felt unable to tell the public what they were doing did not bode well for the future.

All that remained was convincing Congress to go along. First, this meant House Ways and Means. A strong endorsement from the committee would help a lot; a weak or divided endorsement would hurt. As one committee source put it, "the deal was ours to screw up." A fast track was needed to have the agreement in place by July, preferably even before Easter recess. After that came budget time—no time for other problems. Public opinion was confused: mildly negative on the individual provisions, mildly positive on the package.[35] Interest groups, equally confused, were also defensive.

Unlike lobbies for the aging, federal employee groups had little to gain from the package; unlike business, they had few comparable interests that might induce moderation so as to preserve long-term relationships. Indeed, the federal employee lobbies, particularly the powerful postal unions, had few relations with Ways and Means; they would get no satisfaction there. Instead, the coalition of federal retirement lobbies, Fund to Assure an Independent Retirement (FAIR), announced a $3 million lobbying campaign whose goal was to win separate votes on employee coverage on either House or Senate floors. As the 1980 and 1982 reconciliations showed when COLA cuts were defeated, the CSR supporters had a lot of clout.

Rostenkowski at Ways and Means could rely on Pepper at the Rules Committee, backed by the leadership, to protect him from FAIR.[36] Rosty's real problem, one source recalls, was "a fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals on the long-term solution." Pickle wanted to add his own plan to the commission package, raising the retirement age to sixty-seven. Pepper, supported by the AFL-CIO whose industrial and craft workers strenuously objected, wanted a tax increase in the year 2015. "We knew if we went one way Pepper wouldn't allow it on the floor, but Pepper's version wouldn't pass on the floor."

Pickle's subcommittee could not give the package bipartisan backing because its Republicans were led by Archer, who had already dissented from the commission report. The subcommittee reported the bill by a 7 to 4 margin. In full committee, the package was attached to proposals from other subcommittees involving medicare, unemployment insurance, and SSI.

The Ways and Means health subcommittee proposed and full committee


accepted a major reform of medicare. The Health Care Financing Administration would establish a schedule of "diagnosis-related groups" (DRGs); each DRG would establish a set fee for treatment for each diagnosis, rather than continuing to pay the hospital for activities, (surgeon's fees, tests, number of days in the hospital), as in the traditional "fee-for-service" system. Setting government costs, and thus "prospective" hospital income in advance, would give hospitals incentives to control their costs; thus, the government would have a way—the payment schedule—to regulate its costs. How a few far-away federal administrators would triumph over many closed-by doctors in monitoring millions of transactions was not specified.

Clearly, prospective payment was intrusive government regulation. But, in TEFRA, Congress had ordered the Health Care Financing Administration to develop a plan; and the administration decided that this system was its best hope for cost cutting. Time described it as "the only element [of administration proposals] that does not automatically send temperatures soaring."[37] Liberals refer regulating hospitals to cutting benefits. And everybody involved knew that medicare's financing problems, though less immediate than those of social security, were in fact more severe. Therefore, the politician effectively conspired to shortcircuit objections from medical providers by attaching prospective payment to the social security rescue before the providers could mobilize opposition.

Prospective payment sailed through Ways and Means. The full Committee gave the GOP a victory by removing a plan by Pickle to allow general revenue subsidies if OASDI got into future trouble. The major issue was what to do about a long-term solution. The full committee faced the same Pickle-and-Pepper dilemma as had the subcommittee. Rostenkowski wanted Pickle's solution, but he had to get past Pepper. Rosty and his allies convinced the Speaker, and Pepper, to leave it up to a floor vote. Let each offer his plan, devoid of sweeteners, with Pepper having the advantage of going last. It was explained to us, by someone we'll call Peter Piper:

We had to do a massive selling job to convince both Pickle and Pepper to trust us. We knew how it would turn out, that Pickle would win. But both sides thought they could win. The Speaker thought the liberal side would win…. Otherwise we would never have gotten a vote…. We had 35 members, and the Republicans kept insisting on a vote in the committee. They kept saying, "We have 20 votes." Rosty kept saying, "No, you have more, you have me and some others, but if we adopt it in committee we'll never get a rule."[38]

On March 9, Pickle won a decisive victory. His amendment carried