To take the long view of President Reagan's moneyless Monday last week, it marks a stage in the slow and contentious evolution of the federal budget process. It seems to be moving in the general direction of a European parliamentary budget, debated and passed in one piece, on one vote. That idea challenges deeply engrained habits and folkways in Congress, and the process of change is not going to be smooth.
Congress itself is ambivalent. A coherent and tightly controlled budget means better fiscal policy and more congressional authority over it. But it also curtails the ability of subcommittees to insert here, delete there and make a few improvements without regard for the total figures. A one-bill budget would mean much more power for Congress as an institution, but much less for individual members. It would also mean stronger parties in Congress, an idea that everybody there but the party leaders has always regarded with deep suspicion.
This evolution began seven years ago in the Budget Reform Act. In response to President Nixon's trespasses, Congress committed itself to begin dealing with the budget as a whole, fitting the pieces together itself and taking responsibility for the totals. But the committees did not give up their traditional prerogatives easily, and Congress has persistently had trouble meeting the demanding deadlines of the new rules. Until this year, the White House never pressed very hard. But Reagan and his allies at the Capitol are using the new budget procedures with unprecedented vigor. That's at least part of the explanation for the current friction and the lapse of spending authority last weekend.
The reconciliation bill last spring put most of the year's authorizing legislation into one gigantic package presented to each house for passage in one crucial vote. The same idea is at work in the current struggle over appropriations. Congress has fallen far behind its schedule with the appropriations bills, but the White House wouldn't be distressed if none of them were ever passed. It would just as soon go through the entire year with the so-called continuing resolutions that the administration views as an alternative to the complex and fragmented appropriations process. In the conventional appropriations bills, health spending is handled by the people who care most about health, defense spending by the defense experts, and so forth. It produces a mosaic of generally reasonable judgments, but, since each subject tends to be in the hands of its friends, it also produces a rising budget.
Continuing resolutions, in contrast, start with the level of spending that a parliamentary majority will support and work backward to impose their arithmetic on the various programs more or less automatically. The Reagan administration has, from the beginning, recognized the old congressional tradition of decentralized and disaggregated budget procedures as its enemy. To keep spending down, the White House wants to hold the budget together and, as far as possible, make Congress vote on it as a whole. That would certainly produce more efficient and controlled budgeting--as well as smaller budgets. It would also render Congress less responsive to its manifold constituencies.
These changes may be procedural, but they cast long shadows. As Reagan continues to press a Congress moving slowly and uneasily away from its traditional practices, moneyless Monday is not likely to be the last budget crisis of fiscal 1982.