A congressional committee went fishing among a pool of balanced-budget advocates yesterday for specific suggestions on how to cut federal spending, but came up with nary a nibble.
At a hearing before the Joint Economic Committee, Chairman Lloyd M. Bentsen (D-Tex.) repeatedly asked three governors, all supporters of a balanced federal budget, to recommend specific cuts that would help the government eliminate its deficit, estimated at about $40 billion this fiscal year.
The governors -- Republicans James R. Thompson of Illinois and Richard A. Snelling of Vermont, and Democrat James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina -- had a good deal of general advice about how Washington could distribute its grants to state and local governments more wisely, but none would nominate a specific grant program that could be cut to reduce the deficit.
"Your question... creates a practical problem," Hunt told Sen. Bentsen. "I don't think it's going to be possible to get governors to name many programs they would cut out altogether."
"Right now, I'd settle for even one," Bentsen replied. "You can't call for a balanced budget, yet oppose efforts to curtail federal outlays to state governments."
Bentsen said he was "terribly disappointed" that no specific reductions were proposed at the hearing, but his statement was the verbal equivalent of crocodile ters. By failing to suggest any cuts, the governors played right into the scenario Bentsen had in mind for the session.
"I thought maybe I'd get two or three suggestions from these fellows," he said after the hearing. "But I knew there wouldn't be many. That's my point -- all these people want a balanced budget, but nobody wants the cuts to come out of his own programs."
Bentsen has taken a leading role in a new effort in Congress -- a reaction to the nationwide campaign for a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget -- to cut federal grants to state and local governments as a means of reducing federal outlays.
He has sponsored legislation to eliminate "general" revenue-sharing grants to states. Such grants, totaling about $2.3 billion this year, are favorites of the governors because they come with no regulatory strings attached.
Accordingly, the three witnesses took strong issue with Bentsen's proposal. They said Congress should focus its attention on "categorical" grants, which are provided for specific local programs and are controlled by fairly rigid federal guidelines.
Snelling said that reducing the regulatory burden involved in the use of categorical grants would save money for both federal and state governments.
Noting that no state government is projecting a budget deficit for fiscal 1979, Bentsen complained that "you are keeping your own operations in the black at the expense of the federal deficit." Snelling warned against such a comparison, however, saying that many states would see their surpluses "evaporate" if the economy were hit by a recession this year.
After the hearing, Snelling, who heads a National Governors' Association committee dealing with budget questions, said he knew beforehand that Bentsen would use the hearing to emphasize the governor's failure to suggest specific budget reductions.
"I tried to get some, you know," Snelling said. "I sent a letter to every governor asking for recommendations, but so far, we've only had a handful of replies." By this summer, he said, he will be able to give Bentsen specific proposals from the governors.
Sentsen said Congress probably would not pass his bill calling for elimination of general revenue sharing, but said he did expect it to pass a bill that would effect "substantial cuts, not just 10 percent or something," in the revenue-sharing program.