The going has been tough for the congressional budget process in recent weeks. So tough, in fact, that observers might conclude Congress had clamped down severely on its spending and, as a result, was having troubles with self-discipline.
Congress did have difficulties with self-discipline, but it is not apparent that they stemmed from a real tightening of the purse. Overall spending for fiscal 1978 will be about 12.6 per cent higher than in 1977 - outlays of $460.95 billion in 1978 compared with $409.2 billion in the current fiscal year.
When the House Budget Committee had a chance to initiate savings by cutting back on impact aid to school districts, the committee dropped the idea although every President since Eisenhower has opposed the aid.
The process came close to breaking down in the House, where conservatives, claiming too little was being offered for defense, succeeded in boosting spending in that sector. But these same conservatives did not like the overall deficit, so they joined with liberals irked by the high defense spending to defeat the overall budget resolution.
Rep. Robert N. Giaimo (D-Conn.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, hammered out a compromise acceptable to enough Democrats to report out a budget a week later.
But it contained several billion dollars less for defense than did the Senate version. House conferees headed by Giaimo, and Senate conferees led by their budget committee chairman, Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine), squabbled for three days until they agreed on a defense figure about midway between the House and Senate proposal, but a little closer to the House's.
To hear the defense proponents such as Rep. Richard Ichord (D-Mo.), Rep. Omar Burleson (D-Tex.), or Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) talk, an adequate national defense was being endangered by liberal spending programs.
"How are we going to beef up NATO?" demanded Rep. Delbert L. Latta (R-Ohio), ranking minority member on the House committee during the conference, "With food stamps?"
As it turned out the committees voted for both guns and butter.
Military spending, which too a substantial real increase in the 1977 budget, rose 12.2 per cent, from $98.9 billion to $111 billion.
Non-defense spending such as housing and other social programs did not take it on the chin, however, as the debate on the House floor might have led some to believe. After the interest on the public debt is removed from non-defense programs, outlays will rise 12.7 per cent this year.
While spending plans for 1978 were rising sharply despite rhetoric to the contrary, Congress did hold back a bit on boosting budget authority - which permits agencies to commit themselves to spend money either in the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, or later.
In defense procurement programs, for example, budget authority might be much more important than outlays. A five-year, billion-dollar weapons program might have only $10 million in outlays the first year.
But again, defense budget authority rose by 8.9 per cent; non-defense budget authority, by 5.7 per cent.
Also, while the budget process permitted large increases in defense and non-defense spending, it did trim back by many billions some of the plans submitted by authorizing committees in mid-March.
The real, if temporary, breakdown in the congressional budget process - set up to give Congress the same ability to judge overall spending as the executive branch possesses - did not come because of any substantive belt-tightening this year, despite what was said during the congressional debate.
Interviews with staffs of the committees as well as legislators themselves indicate that the several impasses can be attributed instead to the convergence of several factors:
A substantial minority of congressmen on both sides of the aisle felt that their pet progams - social or defense - could do better without a budget process, without measuring them against other priorities. Even Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N. Mex.), a strong supporter of the budget process, admitted at the House-Senate conference that he could not support a budget which he felt cut too much from defense.
The AFL-CIO has opposed the budget process from its inception, fearing that it would force Congress to cut spending on those programs organized labor supports.
There was a lapse on the part of the House leadership during the first debate on the budget resolution when defense spending was boostedsubstantially with the help of some administration lobbying. Then other spending was boosted, resulting in a budget that satisfied no one. Fiscal 1978 Outlay Estimates (in billions of dollars)(TABLE) Function(COLUMN)Carter Update(COLUMN)Congress (COLUMN)(4-22-77)(COLUMN)(5-17-77) Defense(COLUMN)$112.8(COLUMN)$111.00 International Affairs(COLUMN) 7.2(COLUMN) 7.30 General Science(COLUMN) 4.7(COLUMN) 4.70 Natural Resources, Energy(COLUMN) 20.9(COLUMN) 20.00 Agriculture(COLUMN) 4.4(COLUMN) 4.35 Commerce(COLUMN) 19.9(COLUMN) 19.40 Community Development(COLUMN) 9.9(COLUMN) 10.80 Education, Training(COLUMN) 27.0(COLUMN) 27.20 Health(COLUMN) 44.6(COLUMN) 44.30 Income Security(COLUMN) 148.7(COLUMN) *147.70 Veterans' Benefits(COLUMN) 18.8(COLUMN) 20.20 Law Enforcement(COLUMN) 3.8(COLUMN) 3.85 General Government(COLUMN) 4.0(COLUMN) 3.85 Revenue Sharing(COLUMN) 9.7(COLUMN) 9.70 Interest(COLUMN) 40.9(COLUMN) 43.00 Allowances(COLUMN) 1.2(COLUMN) 0.90 Offsetting Receipts(COLUMN) -16.0(COLUMN) -16.30 Total(COLUMN)$462.6(COLUMN)$461.95(END TABLE)(FOOTNOTE)
* Congressional outlay figures adjusted to conform to President's. President treats earned income credit as an outlay, Congress as a revenue offset. So the $1 billion of earned income credit has been added both to Congress outlays and Congress revenue estimates. Does not affect deficit, but is an unresolved accounting controversy. (END FOOT) 1978 Budget Estimates (in billions of dollars)[CHART OMITTED]
The loss of some automatic votes in order to preserve a fledgling process that is now two or three years old.
The House always had more problems than the Senate in writing a budget. That is due partially to the bipartisan approach the committee has taken under Muskie, with Sen. Henry L. Bellmon (R-Okla.) more of a partner than ranking opposition. But it also comes about because Muskie, wisely or otherwise, has challenged the Senate appropriations committees less than the House committee has - first under Brock Adams of Washington state, who is now Transportation Secretary, and then under Giaimo.