U,S, Sen. Gramm Rudman, uh, Sen. Warren Rudman, a Republican from New Hampshire, died last month, but in the 1980s, when his name was synonymous with trying to get the federal budget under control, his name always was said with that of his co-budgeteer, Phil Gramm, R-Texas.
Although Gramm and Rudman were most often treated as a single, hyphenated, name, there was a third member of the team – Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-South Carolina.
Together, they did something no longer, it seems, possible. They sponsored the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act, most often referred to as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of 1985. Imagine, Democrats and Republicans actually getting together and finding a way to balance the federal budget, other than to simply print more money.
To be sure, Republicans, generally, liked the idea of cutting federal expenses, while many Democrats feared the savings would come at the expense of social services and other domestic programs. In the end, Gramm-Rudman-Hollings garnered support from nearly all the Republicans and about half the Democrats in the House and Senate, and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in December 1985.
Rudman was widely quoted saying, “Although I had a lot of interests, the deficit, the national debt and adequate military spending were things that I was the most interested in.” The deficit had exploded in the years leading to Reagan’s inauguration. Inflation, seemingly fueled by spiraling wage increases, was about 12 percent in 1980, and unemployment topped 10 percent.
Those who worried about domestic spending cuts were largely vindicated, as I recall. Reagan strongly supported cutting federal spending, leaving it to the states to figure out how to pay for programs they wanted to continue. That was the era when many of us learned the phrase, “unfunded mandate,” when, for instance, schools were required by federal regulations to provide programs for which there was no state or federal money to support them.
I recall writing a column at the time, explaining the difference between deficit and shortfall (mostly for the benefit of TV reporters who seemed too regularly to think the terms synonymous). Suppose, I said, a husband leaves the house for a job interview after promising his spouse he would get the job and she could have the new car she needed to haul the kids around and go grocery shopping.
Shortfall is when he returns home without the job, and his wife is disappointed there is no new car in the driveway.
Deficit is when he arrives home without the job to find she already bought the car.
Spending money we don’t have is, it seems, the American Way.
By the time the 1980s were over, unemployment still was high, and Congress had largely begun ignoring Gramm-Rudman. But at least there had been some effort, some discussion between opposing sides, to try getting the nation’s fiscal house in order.
The current absolute set-in-concrete mode of legislation has been years in coming. In 1991, Rudman gave up trying to foster moderation of the animosity and posturing rife in Congress. In 1996, U.S. Sen. William H. Cohen, a well-known moderate Republican, decided not to run for a fourth term. The nation, he said, had become so divided – and the fractiousness was reflected in Congress – that the likelihood of liberals and conservatives reaching budget agreement had become, if not impossible, highly unlikely.
This year, another moderate Republican – Sen. Olympia Snowe, of Maine – decided to call 40 years in Congress “enough.” She based her decision, she said in a letter quoted in the Washington Post, on the “dysfunction and political polarization in the institution (Senate).
In spite of pronouncements from various candidates, there is no “reaching across the aisle.” In earlier years, the winner of a presidential election, even if only by “50 percent plus 1,” would declare the vote a mandate. “I have political capital,” said Pres. George W. Bush in 2004. “I intend to spend it.”
This year, however, the Congress vs. President battle appears to have picked up where it left off. Politicians and historians will long debate the relative merits of each side’s argument, but down on the work floor of the nation’s stores and factories, one thing is obvious: The speeches are the same after the election as they were before.
I don’t know how to fix it, and I’ll not get into which side is right – not now, anyway. Often one side accuses the other of “playing politics,” but let’s be serious: the game is politics. But I think the statement that so often accompanies the accusation is true: It is time to put the nation first.
Unfortunately, many politicians, concerned more with job security than doing right for the nation, think putting the nation first means absolute allegiance to lines drawn for them in campaign sand.
Somehow, I think Gramm-Rudman, er, Warren Rudman, was onto something, when he helped forge a bi-partisan budget bill, and when he left the senate because the work he loved had been taken over by people who didn’t understand what it was about.
Photo by CSIS
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