House Democratic leaders have what they think is the solution to the problem of balancing the budget-make the president do it.
The leaders don't say so in quite those words, but that's the essence of a bill put forth yesterday by House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex).
The bill is the leadership's response to growing pressure around the country-and from some newer House members-for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
Under Wright's plan, the Treasury Department or the Congressional Budget Office would determine by Jan. 3 of each year whether expected revenues would equal anticipated budget outlays, and if not by how much.
Wright has two proposals for what would happen next, and he said he is willing to let House members chose between them. Under the first, the House and Senate Budget committees would report by Jan. 13 a measure directing the president to reduce controllable expenditures by the amount necessary to balance the budget. The president could either make the cuts, or ask Congress to waive the law and permit a deficit, or Congress could take it upon itself to waive the law and permit a deficit.
Under the second plan, if the secretary of the treasury reported to the president by Jan. 3 that the budget would not be in the balance, the president would have the power to impound funds to balance the budget. That order would take effect within 15 days after it was submitted to Congress, unless the Budget committees reported within 10 days a resolution reducing or increasing the cuts or changing where they were made, or voted not to make them at all.
Wright calls the two bills the "Budget Deficit Control Act" and said they will be referred to the House Rules Committee.
Wright's plan differs considerably from most of the balance-budget legislation proposed or introduced so far. Most plans call for the Budget committees to report out a balanced budget, and some call for a three-fifths or two-thirds majority to approve a deficit.
Wright's plan would take the responsibility for where to cut off Congress' back and place it on the president's. It also would relieve the Congress of the problem of cutting pet programs or angering interest groups by cuts.
Wright admitted in an interview that Congress would not be required to report a balanced budget, but he said there would be "a very strong presumption" towards balancing the budget, because Congress would know what was coming later.
Wright also acknowledged the plan would not satisfy Republicans who want a constitutional amendment or a two-thirds majority before a budget could be unbalanced. Wright said any legislation requiring a super-majority "would lead to minority rule" and would be unacceptable to Democrats.
"Some Republicans want to characterize anything as too weak. On the Democratic side, some don't believe in a balanced budget. Each of those is a minority," Wright said.
He said his plan gets away from the problem of trying to accurately estimate revenues and outlays and setting figures in concrete even though an "honest miscalculation" was made.
He said other plans "wouldn't give you the flexibility you need to get the budget out of balance in case of an emergency."
Wright said his plan was "akin to systems that exist in some states."
Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn), a moderate and member of the Budget Committee, said the plan is inadequate because it deals only with controllable expenditures and "obviously is not an attempt to get at the problem."
"If you can't make careful cuts when you're considering the budget, then you'll never make dramatic cuts at the first of the year," Frenzel said.
He noted Democrats had passed a budget revision bill in 1974 in a great show of taking back control of the budget and preventing presidential impoundments.
Rep. Barber Conable (R.N.Y.), ranking minority member of the Ways and Means Committee and a member of the Budget Committee, said he was "somewhat amused to see [the Democrats] going back to impoundments," but added, "I'm not totally negative."
"The whole thing depends on the will to balance the budget anyway," but "I don't mind the after-the-fact approach." Conable explained that one of the problems with measures requiring a balanced budget to be reported was that Congress would tend to "overtax" to ensure a balance. "That's why states wind up with big surpluses. This is probably preferable," Conable said.
"I think they can do better and I think they will do better," Frenzel said."They can't play games with this very long. The demand is too real. When they realize this, they'll have something else."