While everyone's attention has been riveted on the endless budget gavotte on taxes and continuing resolutions, the budget summiteers have devised a wholesale revision of the congressional budget process itself. Barely a soul outside the Capitol and the Office of Management and Budget knows about it. It could be subtitled: "How I learned to stop worrying and love the triple, rolling sequester."
Never debated in the House and introduced with one hour of debate in the middle of the night in the Senate on Oct. 18, the reconciliation bills currently in conference will change the rules of the game much as did the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings amendments five years before. So for all of you who have learned what a "sequester" is and why it is important to your life, get ready for "pay-as-you-go" budgeting.
In an effort to ensure that the five-year spending reductions agreed to at the summit are actually achieved, the leadership of both houses is supporting budget enforcement provisions that will change the way Congress considers legislation that affects spending. Deficits no longer matter, because the deficit itself will no longer trigger spending reductions. The proposal recognizes that Congress has little power over the economy and that economists' forecasts do not have the accuracy to predict what a likely deficit will be 18 months or more in the future.
Therefore, the leadership and the White House are quietly giving up on deficit targets as action-forcing events. Instead, spending and revenue targets are being etched in stone today for the next five years, defended by super majority voting rules and enforced by the latest budget creature: the pay-as-you-go sequester.
This new weapon is the son of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. The entire budget is divided into discretionary and entitlement programs -- with spending caps for domestic, defense, international and entitlements. Spending under each cap cannot be breached except for "economic and technical" reasons, as determined by the president's OMB. The old-fashioned Gramm-Rudman-Hollings sequester is being replaced.
Instead, if Congress appropriates more than permitted and the president signs that appropriation, then within five days of enactment OMB determines how much money has to be sequestered to get the spending targets back to the 1990 reconciliation agreement -- and that amount is sequestered from all the appropriations within one of three categories that have been breached by the cap-busting bill: defense, international and domestic. Each bill that busts the cap triggers a new sequester to compensate for the new spending.
Similarly, if an entitlement program like Medicare is expanded and there are no new sources of revenues to pay for that expansion, all entitlements are reduced by the amount of the increase in the new program through a pay-as-you-go sequester.
Any proposal to increase Medicaid over its allowed cap without financing means that Medicare and Aid to Families With Dependent Children get cut. Add money for AIDS, and you may have to cut all domestic appropriations. The price of increased aid to Poland may be less aid for Egypt and Israel. Constituencies for current spending priorities will initially be inclined to rally round to protect what they have -- and oppose any new initiative, no matter how worthy. Those who want more must bear the burden either of finding new revenues or of taking the funds away from some other program.
No trading guns for butter, or butter for guns. Savings in any one area cannot be used to increase spending in another. Any funds left over are directed exclusively to retiring the existing deficit. There is a kicker, however. The new spending caps are not flexible enough to cope with any unanticipated, multi-billion dollar crises. If there is another S&L-style debacle or another military expedition abroad, this new scheme will have to be amended to deal with it.
Is it good government? Certainly not a process that brings the revision forward days away from enactment with no reports, little debate and very little understanding by the legislators (let alone the American people) who will live under it.
Is it good public policy? If you liked the Draconian nature of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings and its automatic elimination of choices on the ground that budget passions cannot be controlled without the straightjacket, you will love this new "perfection" into the ultimate straightjacket. The new budget machine closes all the loopholes, cuts off all the votes, renders majorities into minorities and tells us relentlessly that there is no alternative.
If that leads to choices that the American people can understand and increases the respect for what Congress and the government can really accomplish, perhaps we should be glad it took a midnight debate to get the job done. But before the new budget regime is implemented, it might be wise to let the American people know what's coming. The writer, who served as assistant to the president for public liaison in the Carter administration, is chairman of the Wexler Group, a Washington public affairs firm.