Several dozen people have asked me "What should be done about the Budget Act in the House?" My usual answer is that I have some ideas but am still thinking about it. Now that I have been thinking about it at least part of every week since it became law in 1974, I finally decided recently to share what I believe is the only real answer to that question.
And the real answer has very little to do with the substance of the question and the expected answer. Sure, something has to be done about the timing of the various legislative slips of the budget process. Sure, the House has to do something about the membership of the Budget Committee and their tenure. Those and many other things must all be done.
But in this case there is a wide range of methods, all of which could work if supported by a substantial bipartisan majority of the House led by the leaders of the two parties and a majority of the more powerful committee leaders.
Today the budget process is under attack, often denied and disguised, by the leaders and many of the members and the staffs of the powerful Appropriations and Ways and Means committees, as well as many of the legislative committees. In addition to that, the recent and perhaps future chairman of the Committee on the Budget, Rep. James R. Jones, feels entirely free to advertise to his constituents his disagreements with the speaker and other House leaders, thus to a degree alienating not only himself but also his committee from the key support that has kept the Budget Act alive for the eight years of its short and perilous life.
The proof of the latter statement is a segment of a newsletter Jones sent to his constituents before the 1982 elections. It was entitled "Special Report--Budget Briefing" and would be unusual if it came from a rank-and-file member of the Budget Committee, but is really unique as the public statement of its chairman.
The Jones newsletter said:
"In the first years of its existence, the budget process was used to measure spending, not to cut spending.
"But in 1979, when Congressman James R. Jones sought a seat on the House Budget Committee, he and other like-minded Members of Congress developed the idea of using the budget to reduce the growth of federal spending and, therefore, the size of the federal government.
"The House leadership, including the Speaker of the House, opposed this idea, and fought to keep Congressman Jones off the Budget Committee. Many other members of the House agreed with Jones, however, and they elected him to the Budget Committee.
"His efforts were successful: in the last year of the Carter Administration, the Budget Committee cut the federal deficit by $8.5 billion.
"Impressed with his success, the House of Representatives elected Jones Chairman of the House Budget Committee in 1980, despite a lack of support from House leadership.
"When Ronald Reagan became President, and Jim Jones became Chairman of the Budget Committee, they accelerated the use of the budget to hold down taxes and spending."
Frankly, nothing can be done to improve the working of the Budget Act and thus the work of Congress under these circumstances. But the work of Congress must be much improved if the democratic process is to survive in the United States. The executive branch is in a shambles, and so are its relationships with the states and the other governments of the subdivisions of the states. Unless Congress rights itself quickly, our democratic republic could be doomed. The Budget Act has become the key element of the legislative process, and the legislative process is very much the key to the whole complicated system of governments that together rule as agents of the people, for the people and by the people.
So what to do? Obviously, what is happening now is a product of what the Founding Fathers feared and foresaw--factionalism. In the past 15 or so years, the old coalitions of interest groups--which supported and, with bipartisan leadership from the White House and Congress, passed the great national and international legislative programs of the late '40s, the '50s and even the early '60s--has collapsed into rival factions.
There are signs that some leaders are beginning to recognize the need to once more coalesce, to work together not for a single interest or even a broad grouping of like-minded interests but through coalitions of the unlike. Big business, other business, labor, agriculture and many other groups will have to come together and work out their differences so that we have the great and fruitful national compromises of the past. In wartime and after wars, the country has sometimes done extremely well in achieving the programs that worked well for the nation.
Unless the present leaders of the nation can recognize that today the dangers we face are as great as any we have faced in past wars or in past depressions, we and our remarkable system, which has given so much bounty and so much freedom to so many millions, may well be on its way into a page or two in the history books of the year 2076.
The strengthening of the Budget Act must be part of that reformation, and that reformation may well be as fundamental as was the great change from the Articles of Confederation to the U.S. Constitution.
Fortunately, there are those who are leading the way to that kind of coalition, such as former budget committee chairman Bob Giaimo and his Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. There are others, but we must all hurry. The world will not wait.