THE FATE OF Congress bipartisan efforts to implement reforms to its budget-making process proves the Washington axiom that all solutions create new problems.
The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, enacted in 1974 to give Congress more power over the federal budget, is now being used in ways that will lead to precisely the opposite result: reduced congressional control and shift of substantial additional power to the executive branch. Moreover, misuse of a once little-known provision in the act called "reconciliation" is doing exactly what Congress sought to avoid: undermining the role of its authorizing and appropriating committees and creating laws with inadequate consideration of consequences.
Unless this misuse of "reconciliation" is curbed, members of Congress, of whatever political persuasion, will soon discover that they have dramatically altered the method by which Congress has legislated since the earliest days of the republic.
This is not an argument about defeating the Reagan administration's program; Congress has ample opportunity to act on the president's proposals. Nor is it an argument against providing presidents with more authority; as someone who served two presidents in the White House, I have considerable sympathy with the need for enhanced presidential power.
But the dramatic consequences of the budget actions soon to be taken by Congress in the reconciliation bill should occur only after careful consideration, with deliberate and well understood legislative procedures, not by short-circuiting critical parts of the legislative process.
The unintended uses to which "reconciliation" are being put; the possiblity of a substitute, sponsored by David Stockman's Office of Management and Budget, being passed by the House within two weeks and undoing the work of House committees, and the hasty inclusion of substantive, changes in authorizing laws without any budget savings -- all undermine the intent of the 1974 budget act.
That law, one of the most important pieces of legislation in our history dealing with the structure of American government, was enacted a month before President Nixon's resignation, for two overriding reasons. First, Congress felt the president had unconstitutionally refused to spend money it had appropriated, thus weakening Congress' control of the purse strings. Second, Congress wanted to restore the capacity it had lost to the presidency to establish clear budget priorities, to reassert control over burgeoning spending and to adjust its decisions better to prevailing economic conditions.
Nowhere in that law or its history can anyone find an intent to short-circuit congressional control of spending and taxation -- certainly not in its "reconciliation" provision. Indeed, the legislative history makes it clear that Congress intended to rely on its authorizing committees for policy decisions and on its appropriating committees to control spending -- jobs they had performed well in the past.
A reconciliation was a process to be used late in the congressional term to reconcile actions taken by congressional committees on individual bills with overall and binding budget figures set in the second budget resolution. As the Senate report accompanying the budget act noted reconciliation permits "effectively the changes, if any, directed in the second required budget resolution."
The first budget resolution, setting earlier budget targets in mid-May, was not to be binding. It certainly was not intended to preempt the appropriations process. bAs the House report accompanying the act stated, the "first concurrent resolution on the budget would set tentative targets . . . to guide Congress during its subsequent consideration of the various spending bills," and it "would not restrict the processing of appropriations measures through Congress."
In fact, Congress explicity rejected efforts to make the first resolution binding. As the House report again stated, after Congress "reviewed the many problems associated with early ceilings, we agree that targets offer the most workable approach to genius spending control." This was in no small part because early spending limits "downgrade the utility of the appropriations process."
The budget act itself could not be more clear: Only after the second, binding resolution is enacted in September are the tax-writing, appropriating and authorizing committees to adjust revenue or spending programs. These changes are reported to the Senate or House Budget Committee, which "shall report to its house a reconciliation bill or reconciliation resolution, or both, carrying out all such recommendations without any substantive revision."
Yet this entire mechanism, designed to protect the legislative process while alowing Congress to exert more control over the budget, has been overextended. The Congress is now, in June, working under a binding "reconciliation" provision included in the first budget resolution -- even though there is nothing to "reconcile" at this early stage in the process.
How can this remarkable turnabout have occurred? While it may be legal -- based on a catch-all provision in the budget act related to the first May budget resolution -- it was never the intent of the budget act for b inding reconciliation to be included with the first resolution.
Doing so is bad policy -- but by no means a partisan one. Except for a fleeting use in 1976, it was the Carter administration in 1980 which first proposed -- and a Democratic-controlled Congress which first accepted -- use of a binding "reconciliation" at the early stage of the budget process. I doubt that anyone in the Carter administration foresaw this one-time action last year as precedent for what is being done now.
Stockman's OMB, through a reconciliation provision in the first budget resolution crafted by Reps. Phil Gramm (D-Tex.) and Delbert Latta (R-Ohio), has carried matters to new lengths:
Gramm-Latta is binding not merely for one fiscal year, as was the Carter bill, but for three. Thus Congress will be unable to review its decisions effectively for the foreseeable future.
Reconciliation instructions proposed by President Carter affected only appropriations bills and entitlement programs leading to direct budget savings. The Gramm-Latta instructions to further, directing congressional committees to reduce basic authorizations. This forces reductions in appropriations through the authorization process.
Stockman, together with some House members, is preparing a substitute for the reconciliation bill now being compiled by the House Budget Committee, resulting from the cuts made by individual committees. This subsititute is being written without a single congresional committee hearing. Known as "Son of Gramm-Latta," it would not only cut the budget differently from the responsible House committees but would include substantive proposals -- such as block grants eliminating scores of federal programs -- without such changes ever having passed through a committee.
These problems, moreover, are being compounded by the decisions of several congressional committees to use the reconciliation bill to make other substantive legislative changes unrelated to spending cuts. These include denying ferderally assisted housing funds to rent-control cities, amending major energy legislation, altering controversial environmental policies and significantly modifying the Community Development Block Grant program. Since a reconciliation bill is virtually veto-proof, it becomes a convenient place for such substantive legislation.
If Congress follows through with the Gramm-Latta reconciliation and accepts on OMB-sponsored reconciliation substitute, the effect would be dramatic. First Congress would be throwing into question its independence in fashioning the budget, which more than any other measure reflects the priorities, values and direction of the nation.
Second, 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. Here, the White House's basic legilstive package, potentially including significant changes in the welfare system, Social Security and jobs programs, would be passed as part of the budget process, with limited floor amendments or floor debate under the terms of the budget act. (In the Senate, of course, one effect to this would be to prevent fillibusters.)
In short, Congress would be forced to make the most sweeping changes in a generation in the substance of federal programs without going through the historic deliberative process to assure sound results or paying heed to the work of its own committees.
Third, the sound role played by the appropriations committees over the years will be significantly undercut. The Gramm-Latta reconciliation in effect says that the appropriations committees cannot be trusted to control spending and that Congress is incapable thereafter of reconciling appropriations bills to the budget.
Fourth, the budget committees would in effect become "super committees" -- precisely what Congress sought to avoid in the 1974 budget act. The House report on that act specifically stated that the budget committees "must not be given extraordinary power in the making of budget policies." The budget committees have successfully walked a fine line through the budget committees. Altering this would be a serious mistake.
Last, joining reconciliation to the first budget resolution restricts Congress' ability to adjust to the inevitable changes in economic conditions which directly affect the budget.
At this point, the current reconciliation process has gone too far and too many committees have put extraordinary effort into complying with its directives to try to stop it in its tracks. But a number of steps can and should be taken.
"Son of Gramm-Latta" should not be accepted. Disapproval should not be for partisan reasons but because it further distorts the budget process and threatens the authority of every congressional committee, regardless of party majority. As with any other legislation, some amendments may be appropriate to the reconciliation bill. But if some believe the package as a whole is so unsatisfactory as to warrant restruing, that should be done in the committees with the knowledge and experience to do the job properly, not by the blunt instrument of a floor substitute.
In addition, reconciliation in the future should not be permitted to be used for changes in basic authorizations unrelated to budget savings and should not be a repository for substantive legislation. Next, the appropriations committees' process must be respected; appropriations committee chairmen are able men dedicated to budget discipline.
Finally, reconciliation in subsequent year should return to its rightful place -- in the second budget resolution. It would be unfortunate if this could only be done by having to amend the 1974 act itself, which potentially would open the entire process to substantive changes. It would be preferable for Congress simply to reject any future proposal to include a reconciliation provision in the first budget resolution.
The new budget process has been built with bipartisan support. Its dicipline is critical in an era of limited fiscal resources. But the process itself will be imperiled if reconciliation continues to be extended beyond its original design, threatening the authority and expertise of authorizing and appropriating committees. The budget act is too important for the nation's long-term economic vitality to be endangered by whatever short-term advantage may accrute to OMB and its allies by use of the reconciliation process in ways Congress never intended.