X-Ray Time

Wm. F. Buckley Jr.

It is useful to examine the federal deadlock through a strictly democratic prism.

1. We have a separation of powers that authorizes Congress uniquely to pass legislation; and a subdivision here that authorizes only the House of Representatives to write bills that will cost money.

2. The President is authorized to veto any bill presented to him by Congress. To override a presidential veto requires two-thirds of the vote in each house.

3. In the existing situation, a majority of both houses passes a measure that would simultaneously do a great many things, including program an increase in payments required by the public to sustain Medicaid and Medicare.

4. The President exercises his veto, complaining specifically about the measure's health-care provisions.

5. Congressional leadership asks itself: Given that an override of the veto cannot be recruited, how might Congress force its hand on the President?

Force its hand!? Yes, that is what Messrs. Dole and Gingrich are saying in effect, because they are seeking to implement what they understand as strict instructions from the American people. They are to move toward balancing the budget, and their plan for doing so is blocked by the President's power.

But Congress also has power. The continuation of federal activity, including the health benefits, requires financing. It is generally assumed that so-called entitlements are inertial forces that cannot be interrupted. But the forward movement of those forces requires constant propulsion, and this is doable only by appropriations by Congress.

The leadership is quite confident that its mandate hasn't withered since it was enunciated in the November election. A national survey done by Public Opinion Strategies only a week ago reveals that 66 per cent of Americans favor ``balancing the budget [even] if that means that spending on Medicare and Medicaid would continue to increase but at a lower rate.'' Accordingly, Congress uses its trump card and freezes spending at the highest level authorized by a preceding Congress, i.e., at 4.9 trillion borrowed dollars.

So: The people voted, Congress acted, the President vetoed, Congress used its primordial power.

In a parliamentary system, such an impasse would be quickly solved. The parliament would be dissolved, an election scheduled. If the party upholding a balanced budget prevailed in that election, the prime minister would resign and be replaced by a member of the validated party. If otherwise, the prime minister would be back with a compliant legislature. But then, the prime minister wouldn't be occupying the executive mansion unless placed there by the ruling faction in the legislature. What we face today is what the British would call a constitutional crisis.

The public has not yet been discomfited, and no one will be for a period, the exception being 800,000 furloughed federal workers. The Treasury secretary is maneuvering and isn't likely to run out of gas unless a major creditor nation decides that there is too much harum-scarum going on and, instead of holding its reserves in dollars, switches to yen, or marks, or pounds sterling.

What we do have is high-pitched political theater. The people are vaguely aware of the instructions they gave to the new Congress, but they are, with various degrees of intensity, concerned with medical care, and that element of Americans most concerned is of course the senior citizens, and it is they who exercise critical clout. The President is relying on his incantatory evocations of starving children and homeless old people, with here and there a tear shed for what used to be Yellowstone Park. Presidential indignation makes its way quickly to the headlines.

By contrast, it is Congress that is held to be the agent of all those things, and we come quickly on the supreme irony, which is that references are almost inevitably to the ``rigid,'' the ``defiant,'' the ``reckless'' Congress, the complement of the lonely, single defender of the people's interest. There was never a better example of everybody being out of step except Johnny.