In contrast to all previous efforts, the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 was an outstanding piece of consensus legislation. Struggle and maneuver over philosophy and turf alike were present; it could not be otherwise. But the head-on donnybrooks that had characterized previous redistribution of power over the way in which money was to be spent were absent.
The manner in which Congress had previously processed the budget had guaranteed conflict and irresponsibility. The Ways and Means Committee was charged with raising revenue, the Appropriations Committee, in theory at least, with spending. Taxes could be cut and spending raised independently. Any adverse effect resulting from the action of one could be blamed on the other. With the growth of backdoor financing, the Appropriations Committee lacked authority over a significant portion of spending. In addition, it seldom functioned as a committee. Rather, decisions were made at the subcommittee level, thus further contributing to fiscal chaos. Finally, budget authority, not outlays, was what was reported from the Appropriations Committee. periodic onslaughts slashing appropriatins bills always filed to result in a comparable reduction in outlays.
The objective of the 1974 Budget Act was not to implement a particular fiscal policy, e.g., a balanced budget. It was to force Congress to be responsible. Should economic and political factors dictate more or less revenue or more or less spending, Congress was to be free to adopt the desired policy. The budget process could reduce federal spending, as spending ceilings had never done, were this policy desired. It was not, however, automatic.
Congress is a political institution. It will not permit its constitutional mandate to provide for the general welfare and common defense to be thwarted by any process. If Congress must choose between responding to an overwhelming demand for action and a rigid budget process, that budget process will be junked or suberted. Failure to recognize this would have been folly.
From 1973 to 1980, the budget process performed substantially as its authors had contemplated. Its achievements were significant. It forced Congress to look not only at the budget, but also at the economy in its entirety. However, this was secondary. Of vital importance was the fact that the process had survived. This survival was not dependent on any particular political climate. It was viewed as neutral.
This year the budget process is unfortunately becoming ever more closely identified with the immediate legislative objective of political conservatism. Inevitably, we fear -- should there be a change in the nation's political climate dictating a change in policy -- the budget proces will suffer. A budget process that has become identified as inimical to progressive objectives, and as a part of the conservative credo, will suffer from the political rejection of conservatism.
1980 saw the first break with the intent of the legislation. The reconciliation process was used in connection with the First, rather than, as had been intended, the Second Budget Resolution. The political if not the economic climate, it was felt, called for a balanced budget in the First Budget Resolution.
This year the Budget Resolution, as modified on the House floor by the Gramm-Latta amendment, went one step further and instructed the legislative committees to reduce previously approved authorizations for appropriations for 1982, and 1983 and 1984 as well. The legislative committees, in drafting reconciliation legislation in turn, have used it as a vehicle to change or extend substantive legislation. House Republicans would go further and use it to substitute block grants for categorical programs. The reconciliation process has thus been exploited for puposes never envisioned by authors of the 1974 legislation.
If the administration's insistence that it have its own way -- and at once -- through the reconciliation process continues, it will be a gross distortion of the intent of those who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as the intent of the 1974 budget act.
Even if the administration does moderate its pressure or is successfully resisted, its blind commitment to this truly revolutionary rather than evolutionary process will likely shake the fragile balance of our country's system of self-government.
What we have seen played out in conneciton with the reconciliation bill is all too symptomatic of serious cancer in the American political process. The primary duty of members of Congress is legislating., Congress is a co-equal branch of the government. Political parties, it is true, were devised to bridge the gap between the executive and the legislative. And a Democratic Congress in general will share the same political values as a Democratic president, as their Republican colleagues will share those of a president of their party. But party members should not feel compelled to give their automatic approval to a legislative program merely because they are in accord with its philosophical objectives. That, in essence, was the great deficiency -- yes, tragedy -- in the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Congress as regards Great Society programs.
President Reagan and the Republican congressional leadership are ready to carry this unwise method of operation further. Why, this reasoning goes, invest all of the time and effort in the often admittedly slow and painfully deliberative process of considering, weighing, modifying and compromising specific legislative proposals? It would be much easier to attach them to the reconciliation bill. That the extension, termination or initiation of a program may have no relationship to the purpose of a reconciliation measure makes no difference. It is most seductive indeed.
Authoritarianism is always seductive. There are those of us who remember still another time when, as now, supposedly "respectable" authoritarianism was seriously considered in high quarters. Leaders in business and the military and certain intellectuals then, as now, proved susceptible to its virus. Those in Congress, without regard to political philosophy, who would permit its role as a legislature to atrophy would be well advised to reconsider. If Congress is to be reduced to automatons permitted only to ratify a presidential legislative agenda that has been premasticated by an all-powerful executive, the American people, with some justice, may very well ask: Why should we support this expensive anachronism?