The House voted yesterday to give the country its first balanced budget in 12 years.
It approved, 225 to 193, a 1981 budget target of $611.8 billion, an increase of nearly $40 billion over estimated current spending, after imposing unprecedented instincts to help the budget stay in balance.
House action on its first budget resolution for next year came as the Senate, struggling with its own fiscal blueprint for 1981, resoundingly rejected liberals' efforts to restore money for domestic programs that the defense-minded Senate Budget Committee proposed to cut to finance a big increase in military outlays.
The House overrode protests from most of its leading committee chairmen in imposing, by a vote of 289 to 127, stringent spending restrictions aimed at assuring that the already fragile budget balance does not come apart under the weight of recessionary and special-interest pressures.
The provision that drew the chairmen's fire directs House and Senate committees to chop $9 billion from existing programs under a previously little-used provision of the 1974 Budget Control Act known as "reconciliation."
In another major departure, the House also made the forthcoming first budget resolution binding to the extent that any spending bill in excess of its target figures could not be signed into law without compensatory cuts being made elsewhere, or unless the budget ceiling is raised in a second resolution later in the year.
In previous years, the first resolution set only nonbinding targets, and reconciliation orders to committees were not even contemplated until the second budget resolution came along.
Without the new limitations, "you can forget about a balanced budget," argued House Budget Committee Chairman Robert N. Giaimo (D-Conn.), who, along with other House Democratic leaders, rejected similar action only six months ago -- shortly before President Carter and Congress jointly declared war on budget deficits in their fight against inflation.
The budget resolution picked up 22 Republican votes, considerably fewer than had been expected but enough to provide the margin of victory and to signal "the beginning of a real bipartisan budget process," according to Giaimo. Republicans generally have opposed budget resolutions.
Only minutes after the House completed action on its budget resolution, the Senate buried by 83 to 13 a proposal by Majority Whip Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) to increase domestic spending by $6.6 billion over what the Senate Budget Committee recommended. Cranston, who has fashioned his proposal as a comprehensive liberal substitute for the committee's package, would have gotten some of the money by cutting defense outlays by $2.5 billion.
Then the Senate also rejected, 54 to 30, a more modest proposal advanced by Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) and Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) to shift $2 billion from defense to domestic programs. Along the way, it more narrowly defeated proposals to cut foreign aid by $200 million, trim Energy Department costs by $100 million and add $600 million to veterans' benefits.
Differences in the two budget proposals will now have to be ironed out in conference, which could prove difficult in light of the two houses' conflicting priorities. Timing is crucial because supplementary appropriations to continue food stamps and several other programs after June 1 are tied to action on the budget resolution.
The House budget proposal totals $611.8 billion, including $147 billion for defense. The Senate Budget Committee has proposed $612.9 billion in total spending, including $155.7 billion for defense.
The House proposal includes a $2 billion surplus, not including $10 billion anticipated from Carter's oil import fee that is being challenged both in Congress and in court. The Senate surplus is smaller. Both are considered surpluses on paper only, however, because the rapidly accelerating recession is expected to erode revenues and increase costs, jeopardizing the budget's balance.
Over the last week, the House rejected a series of proposals to rejuggle spending priorities recommended by Giaimo's committee, finally adopting the budget almost exactly as recommended by the committee.
In debate yesterday, committee chairmen led by Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), head of the Interior Committee, contended that the reconciliatory orders amounted to a "grab for power" by the Budget Committee that exceeded the intent of the Budget Act. It imposes "draconian cuts" based on balanced-budget assumptions that are "nothing more than an educated guess," said Udall.
But Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.) noted that, without reconciliation, congressional committees achieved only $200 million of $2.7 billion in proposed savings this year.
The House also approved a final spending ceiling of $57.6 billion for fiscal 1980, reflecting inflation-induced spending increases and a deficit that has crept up from a projected $23 billion a year ago to $42.8 billion at the latest count.
Many Republicans argued that this was a portent of failure for the Democrats' budget-balancing efforts for fiscal 1981, although Giaimo attributed the ballooning 1980 deficit largely to interest rates for government borrowing, which are beginning to decline.
Meanwhile, emotions flared in the Senate when Sen. Daniel P. Mohnihan (D-N.Y.) proposed shifting $500 million from water projects to revenue sharing, triggering a regional spat and a testy response from acting Senate Budget Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.).
Hollings accused the New Yorker of "trickery" and "insidious" tactics in seeking the money for revenue sharing so it could be used for transitional aid to recession-prone cities, with New York getting 24 percent of the total. a"A political kitty in an election year," fumed Hollings in reference to Carter's advocacy of the aid-to-cities money.
Repeatedly denying Hollings' charges that he wanted the money exclusively for cities, Moynihan dismissed the proposed outlay of $3.7 billion for water projects as an "anachronistic system of random political rewards" that should be trimmed as the first step toward overall reform.
Moynihan's proposal was rejected, 54 to 40, but not before Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.) weighed into the debate, bearing down on Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), sponsor of another proposal to cut water projects without earmarking the money for anything else. "Why do you pick on water projects?" growled Magnuson. "You have no knowledge of water projects."