THE FIRST modern megabill was passed by the House of Representatives over the objections of its Democratic leadership on June 26, 1981. It was called Gramm-Latta II, after Phil Gramm, then a Democratic congressman, now a Republican senator from Texas, and Delbert Latta, then as now ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee.
The measure was a reconcilation bill; David Stockman was its godfather. The former House member who had become President Reagan's budget director had come up with the bright idea of using the congressional budget process to combine $35 billion in domestic spending cuts into a single yes-or-no vote that would short-circuit both the congressional committee structure and the interest groups to which that structure responds. The goal was to gloss over the individual cuts, on which the Republicans thought they would lose, in favor of a generalized vote on economy in government, which they thought they could win.
Senior Democrats bewailed the procedural violence being done -- and were beaten, 217 to 211. Conservatives were delighted. President Reagan said Congress had "heard the voice of the people." In an editorial titled "Crocodile Tears," The Wall Street Journal mocked the Democrats' procedural concerns and announced that "for the first time since its inception the congressional budget process is starting to work."
We recount all this because the 100th Congress reconvenes today, and we expect to hear a great deal about the breakdown of the legislative and assorted fiscal processes. The example will be the first session of this Congress, in which an entire year's work on the budget (and some other odds and ends) was finally reduced to just two bills, one a reconcilation measure and direct descendant of Gramm-Latta II, the other a single government-wide appropriations bill. Not only were these two bills very late and large. They had -- perhaps the children should leave the room -- pork in them. The president, the congressional Republicans and our friends at The Journal are all among the chief lamenters. They even have a solution in mind: a shift of fiscal power toward the president in the form of a line-item veto.
We ourselves have done a fair amount of deploring of the way Congress behaved in those last few weeks last year. We yield to no one in our indignation; after all, that's how we make our living. Yes, Congress ought to pass its bills on time, ought to have separate votes on separate issues. No, it ought not sneak things to passage in the fine print of big bills and ought not use such bills to cheat the president out of his veto power (any more than that power should be expanded as the line-item enthusiasts want; the balance that had developed over the years was about right). Nor should members be ordering pork when the deficit is $150 billion.
But a little perspective before the mass knuckle-rapping begins. Congress -- we hardly dare to say it -- is basically no different today from what it has ever been. There are always old-timers to tell you otherwise, but it has long been a pork-barreling, rowdy, dilatory, disorganized and fundamentally accommodative institution. The deficits and impasses and megabills of the past seven years have not occurred because Congress suddenly went limp. On the contrary, they've grown out of a political standoff. The president and Congress (including some members of his own party there) have different priorities, and since his early victories, of which Gramm-Latta was one, neither has had decisive power. The megabills, in which each side has come to hold the other's programs hostage, have reflected this.
Lumping a whole year into a few big bills is a bad habit, and if the habit outlasts its cause, it ought to be reformed. But first they ought to try an election.