THE HILL'S BUDGET STAMPEDE" in last Sunday's Outlook section, written by former Carter aide Stuart Eizenstat, must have caused a collective shudder on Capitol Hill among those who understand the congressional budget process.
The reconciliation bill now in Congress to which Eizenstat objects reflects Congress' determination to cut federal spending. The reconciliation bill forces committees to respect spending ceilings. The total amount of money the committees want to spend can not exceed the amount of money the Congress wants to hold the whole federal budget to. That's why it's called reconciliation. The individual committees must reconcile their spending desires with the overall goals of the whole Congress as expressed last month in its first budget resolution for fiscal year 1982. Thus, if the House Education and Labor Committee, for example, had not been able to find it in its heart to make appropriate cuts, the Budget Committee would have made the cuts itself.
What's unprecedented in this year's round of reconciliation is its scope. It involves reductions of nearly $140 billion over the next three fiscal years. It is the single largest spending bill ever brought before Congress. In the past, appropriations were debated and made program by program. This far-reaching legislation will affect virtually every activity of the government, and it is being crafted in one enormous lump.
The reconciliation process which led to this bill has been called the "heart" of budget reform, the "true test of whether the congressional budget process will work." Rep. Leon Panetta, who heads the House Budget Committee's task force on reconciliation, calls reconciliation "a legitimate enforcement tool of the budget process." It can be "used or abused," he acknowledges, "but without it the budget process becomes an empty gesture."
House Budget Committee Chairman James Jones agrees. "Reconciliation per se is not a threat to the legislative process if properly used," Jones says. It can be abused, he says, "by either denying congressional committees adequate time to deliberate spending cuts or by allowing the executive branch to override the decisions of the committees by writing substantive changes in the law when the bill is on the floor of either the House or Senate."
Not having enough time to deliberate on cuts is exactly the complaint the authorizing committees had with the omnibus reconciliation bill. It was a mad scramble to write a bill so mammouth that probably no one person will ever read the whole thing. Yet if the committees have had insufficient time to deliberate on these cuts now, they would have had far less time and a far more difficult effort to write a reconciliation bill after the second budget resolution -- in which overall spending limits can be revised, if necessary -- passed in September.
It is true, as Eizenstat explains, that the budget act envisioned that reconciliation would take place after passage of the second budget resolution in September rather than after the first resolution passed much earlier in the year.
Having reconciliation so early does indeed conflict with the original budget act's intentions. The practical reality of the situation dictated that reconciliation needed to come early if it were to work. So Congress changed the rules.
Congress did the same thing last year when it passed the 1980 reconciliation bill after the first resolution. The original budget act specified that the House Budget Committee chairman could not serve two terms. Congress changed that rule as well to allow Rep. Robert Giaimo to serve a second term as Budget Committee chairman. The three-year life span of the current reconciliation bill may be changed as well since there is little doubt that Congress will do what it wants in succeeding years. Like the rest of us, Congress learns through experience. It's budget experience calls for an early reconciliation.
An early reconciliation is not the "bad policy" that Eizenstat believes it to be. The first resolution is by far the more important of the two. In the first resolution Congress spells out its economic assumptions and budgetary objectives. These are the critical policy decisions. Prior to adoption of the first resolution, neither the House nor the Senate may consider any revenue, spending, entitlement, or debt legislation. The first resolution shows the direction in spending and taxing policies that Congress wants to take. It is Congress' instrument for budgetary planning.
Reconciliation is more appropriate after the first resolution since the committees have more time to deliberate on their decisions of where to cut spending. No appropriation bill would have passed to complicate these decisions. Reconciliation after the first resolution is Congress' insurance policy that the cuts it wants actually do take place.
The second resolution comes only 15 days before the start of the next fiscal year. By that time the appropriations bills are enacted and the authorizations are in place. The second resolution does not establish policy. It confirms what already has happened.
If reconciliation were to take place at this time it would raise serious procedural problems. The committees would have far less time to deliberate on spending cuts than they had after the first resolution. More important, it would be extremely difficult to rescind appropriations or entitlements which already had taken place. If reconciliation is going to be effective rather than disruptive, it needs to take place after Congress passes the first resolution, not the second.
Reconciliation means that the congressional budget process has come of age. Rather than abdicate its budgetary responsibilities, the reconciliation Congress now is undergoing insures that it will play its essential role in shaping the national budget. Reconciliation is a powerful tool that should not be used lightly. Chairman Jones says that "it deserves study before we use it again." Such a study may well reveal that the budget act should be changed to permit an early reconciliation.
In passing the first budget resolution, Congress directed its own committees to make spending cuts in both authorizations and direct spending programs (entitlements). The committees had complete discretion to choose the cuts they wanted to make under their jurisdiction.
Nicholas Masters, special assistant to Budget Committee chariman Jones, says that Jones "has made it abundantly clear that his intentions all along have been to implement fully the directives in the first resolution. This has not been done in response to executive pressure but from a commitment to the budget process -- and reconciliation is an essential part of that process."
Since 1931 the budget has been in deficit for all but seven years. If there is to be an eighth year, it can only come from reconciliation such as is taking place now. "Restraint in spending," Budget Committee member Jim Maddox says, "is necessary if we are ever going to balance the budget. Such restraint is difficult if not politically impossible to accomplish in a program-by-program basis. Reconciliation is a necessary procedure to guarantee that Congress will review and action its overall spending decisions."