It is not the most beloved piece of legislation ever passed by Congress. Sen. Ernest Hollings called it a “long and tortured document.” Sen. Phil Gramm compared it to a “shotgun wedding.” Sen. Warren Rudman termed it “a bad idea whose time has come.” And those guys are the chief sponsors of the bill. Opponents of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985—which was signed by the President on Dec. 12—are far harsher in their appraisals. Sen. Gary Hart called it “hemlock.” Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan termed it a “suicide pact.” And Rep. Les Aspin pronounced it “just about the dumbest piece of legislation I have seen in my 15 years on Capitol Hill.”
Ironically, the bill inspired this volley of vitriol by mandating what every politician claims to support—reducing the deficit and balancing the budget. Basically, the law sets ceilings on the federal deficit for each of the next five years. Every year, the ceiling falls, from this year’s target of about $172 billion to $0 in 1991. That is the popular part of the bill. The less popular part stipulates that if Congress fails to meet those deficit levels, across-the-board budget cuts will automatically be made. The burden of those cuts will be evenly divided between defense spending and domestic programs, although the bill lists untouchables, including Social Security and some already signed defense contracts.
If that is confusing, picture the budget as an enormously obese woman who can barely squeeze into a size 26 frock. Under Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, she would be legally forced to wear a size 18 next year, a size 12 the year after and finally, in 1991, a size 8. If she can’t fit into those new togs, computer-driven chain saws will slim her down, with all parts equally trimmed. The Pentagon won’t be able to save her arms; nor will the Department of Education be able to spare her head. Everything will be cut—fat, muscle and bone.
But that, of course, is a worst-case scenario. Gramm, Rudman and Hollings hope that their law will compel the President and Congress to put the fat woman on a crash diet to spare her from the chain saws. “We are,” says Gramm, “eliminating the ability of the President and Congress to abrogate their responsibilities to the American people and to pass a heavy burden of debt on to their children.”
The trio who shepherded the controversial bill through a skeptical Congress are unlikely allies. Gramm, a Texan who looks, talks and sometimes acts a bit like Dallas’ J.R. Ewing, is a maverick Democrat who jumped ship in 1983 to join the Republican Party. “I didn’t go to Washinton to be loved and I haven’t been disappointed,” says Gramm. Rudman, a former amateur boxer, Army officer and attorney general of New Hampshire, is a reserved New Englander who shuns the glitz of the Washington party circuit. And Hollings, the only Democrat of the troika, is a silver-haired, silver-tongued South Carolinian who failed abysmally in his quest for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination. “I learned one thing in this campaign,” he said after quitting. “When E.F. Hollings talks, nobody listens.” Despite their obvious differences, they say there were no conflicts among them during their grueling three-month lobbying effort for the bill. “There’s no unwritten story about behind-the-scenes fights,” says Rudman. “There were none. None. Any disagreements we had were intellectual in nature.”
The trio’s disagreements with critics of the bill are less lofty. Opponents of the law predict that it will cripple the country militarily while eviscerating domestic programs. “Ultimately, [this] flawed doomsday machine will break, and we’ll have to junk it,” says Rep. William Gray of the bill. “But perhaps not without a constitutional crisis.” Gramm disagrees. “The bill is modeled after the procedure used in 43 states to achieve a statutory constitutional prohibition against deficits,” he says. “It is a straightforward, proven procedure.” Still, the trio is on guard against efforts to repeal their law. “There could be enough irresponsibility in Congress to repeal this thing next year,” says Rudman. If that happens, he adds, “the voters should throw us all out of office—indiscriminately.”