Winston Churchill would have felt right at home in the Senate last week. It was Churchill who told the House of Commons: "Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms . . ."
There is no better summation of the congressional budget process we've been going through. Months of work and weeks of intensive negotiation have so far failed to produce a budget resolution for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Everyone agrees we have to restrain the growth of federal spending.
Everyone agrees that the budget deficits we're contemplating are too high.
And everybody knows that some new revenue measures may well be necessary to keep those deficits from swamping the private credit market.
Yet all these agreements have failed to yield a congressional budget resolution. As things stood Thursday night, there are enough votes to kill every budget proposal put forward, but not enough to pass any of them.
Still, true to Churchill's maxim, if there had been no budget process, the situation would be worse.
Equating a simple budget resolution with democracy itself may seem a bit dramatic, but the congressional budget process lies at the heart of modern and coherent democracy. What we spend determines how we govern, and nowhere is that fact in sharper focus than when all the problems of government descend on one set of people in one room at one time during budget resolution season.
Everybody wants to decide what the budget will be; but nobody wants to serve on the Budget Committee.
Every senator and congressman wants the most money he can get for his favorite federal programs, but nobody wants a tax increase or a large federal deficit.
Each legislator must serve both the special interests of his constituents and the central interests of the nation, but doing both at the same time is a little like trying to rob your own bank.
The remarkable thing is, until 1974, nobody in Congress bothered to count the money.
In what Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici calls the "ancient times," congressional budget decisions were made wholly independent of each other. Every authorization, every appropriation was decided on its own merits, without regard for how each decision would affect other spending priorities, revenue requirements or deficit projections. Congress had, in effect, abdicated all fiscal reponsibility. It was left to the president to check the excesses of the legislative branch through vetoes and, more controversially, through the impoundment of appropriated funds.
Richard Nixon, who preferred impounding to vetoing, called our old system "hoary." Some members of Congress felt vaguely insulted. But we changed the system nevertheless.
With the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, Congress resolved to reconcile government spending with government income in the same way any Amercian family must manage its household budget. We resolved to set specific deadlines for considering legislation to spend public money, and all authorization and appropriation recommendations were to be made before the budget resolution process really began.
We've never really tried it that way, and before we start reforming the budget process we might consider following the rules we established in the first place. But after nine years of missed deadlines and mounting deficits, I doubt that we will.
We may have changed the process too much already. In 1981, a strategy hatched on Capitol Hill and enthusiastically embraced by the Reagan administration used the congressional budget process to move the federal leviathan a few degrees away from the free-spending course of previous years. Some feathers were ruffled, but we simply could not have slowed the growth of federal spending, as we began to do two years ago, if the congressional budget process had not existed. A piecemeal, program-by-program approach would never have succeeded, and federal spending might still be increasing by 17 percent a year--instead of half that rate.
It may be that not enough was attempted while the political mandate for spending reform was at its peak. It may be that, if this popular passion for restraint fades away, we in Congress will be left with a tortuous and monotonous budget process that absorbs virtually all our legislative energy and accomplishes virtually nothing.
But it is more likely, in my view, that in some of the reform measures now being proposed lies the salvation of the budget process. Among the many proposals I have heard are two-year budgets, reconstituted budget committees as "joint ventures" of the Appropriations and Finance committees, some combination of authorization and appropriation functions, binding spending targets, more flexible management of budgeted funds and the return of "off-budget" expenses to the regular federal balance sheet.
Without endorsing any one of these recommendations specifically, I believe their sheer number and scope--and there are many others like them--suggest that the time for significant and constructive reform is at hand.
After nine years of practical experience with the congressional budget process, this kind of performance review is a healthy and necessary thing. As Will Rogers said, "even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there."
But it is just as essential that we preserve the process we have begun, that we make this conscious and painful effort to relate spending to taxing, that we try to measure the impact of our actions on the economy at large, that we never again dare be haphazard with the American people's money.
I have watched Pete Domenici on the floor, and I marvel at his skill and dedication to the process. In one way or the other, the Senate needs to do better by him than we are.
I continue to believe that the most important reform Congress can make is more basic than the procedural and technical. We should stop acting like a collection of elected bureaucrats-- scrutinizing every federal activity to the last detail, even writing a thousand-page budget bill as we did two years ago. We should start acting like the national board of directors the Constitution intended us to be.
I will reserve my sermon on the "citizen legislature" for another Sunday, but I will do my best to keep it--and an improved congressional budget process--on the agenda for reforming this awfully good system of government.
In the meantime, rest assured that for my part I am determined to do the best job we can with the tools we have at hand. I predict that some way or the other we will pass a budget resolution this year.