Even before Jimmy Carter submits his last budget and Ronald Reagan moves to cut it, members of Congress are cranking out schemes of their own for holding down federal spending, including a dusted-off plan to keep future budgets from growing faster than the economy.
In the Democratic-controlled House as well as the Senate, now dominated by the GOP, file cabinets are filling with proposals for specific spending cuts for tightening up the creaky congressional process of budget control and for a more free-wheeling examination of once-sacrosanct spending programs.
Even retired lawmakers have gotten into the act with plans for a lobbying coalition to help protect the fragile budget controls from the heavy special-interest pressures that have so often undercut them in the past and may well continue to do so, even in the currently more conservative climate.
Legislation planned by Rep. James R. Jones (D-Okla.), incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, would bind Congress to spend no more than a fixed percentage each year of the country's gross national product (GNP), the total value of goods and services.
Jones is supported by the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), although Domenici says he will be concentrating intially on spending cuts, in line with the recommendations that Reagan is expected to make after his inauguration on Jan. 20.
Domenici's support underscores bipartisan support for this approach. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), ranking minority member of the Senate committee, is not enthusiastic but says he will not oppose it.
As fiscal conservatives, both Jones and Domenici have been pushing the idea for several years but never with the chance of success that is afforded by Congress' lurch to the right in the November elections.
In an interview, Jones said his plan envisions a gradual retrenchment in the rate of federal spending increases over the next five years until spending falls in fiscal 1986 to within a final permanent ceiling of 20 percent of GNP.
He said he is currently working on building some flexibility into the formula by allowing one-half a percentage point leeway on either side of the 20 percent figure to accommodate economic shifts, meaning a lower budget ceiling when the economy is booming and a higher ceiling when it has slowed down.
As an escape hatch for emergencies, a majority of both houses of Congress could vote to raise the ceiling, but they would have to go on record as doing so for a specific, critical purpose -- with, as Jones put it, "all the political repercussions that it entails."
A 20 percent spending lid would entail a sharp reduction in both the growth rate of federal spending and the bite the government takes out of the national economy, a notion that appeals both to traditional opponents of federal spending and to those who are most interested in expansion of the private sector.
Although liberals have often opposed spending lids as threats to social welfare programs, the GNP proposal could pick up more support from the left if it comes to be seen as a less Draconian alternative to a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget, which is also expected to be pushed in the 97th Congress.
Unlike the amendment proposal, Jones' would not bar deficits, although it would presumably restrain them by forcing spending restraint. Nor would it involve changing the Constitution, which requires more time, a two-thirds vote of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. Jones plans to introduce his proposal in late January or early February as an amendment to the 1974 Budget Control Act.
Federal spending has crept upward as a percentage of GNP in the last 20 years, but only slowly. In the late 1950s and early 1960s it was mostly around 19 percent. It cracked 20 percent in fiscal 1967. By fiscal 1980, partly because the economy was in recession, federal spending of $579 billion accounted for 22.6 percent of the $2.568 trillion GNP. Had a 20 percent limit been in effect then, spending would have been limited to $513.6 billion, or more than $55 billion less than was actually spent.
The immediate impact would be less severe, however. Jones anticipates starting the budget countdown with a 22.5 percent ceiling for fiscal 1982, which he said appears to be in line with the budget that Reagan plans.
Jones said he believes there is strong support for the proposal in both houses, with an "excellent" chance of passage if it can scale the hurdle of the House Rules Committee. He said he has been assured by the House leadership that the measure will reach the floor this year.
House Republicans pushed for a budget ceiling pegged to the GNP as part of the House rules when Congress convened Monday but the venture died amid partisan squabbling over rules changes, with Jones arguing that the proposal should be considered later in a different context.
The idea for a citizens' coalition to help sustain the somewhat battered and strained budget process comes from former House Budget Committee chairman Robert N. Giaimo (D-Conn.) and the former ranking minority member of the Senate Budget Committee, Henry Bellmon (R-Okla.) -- with friendly assists from a blue-ribbon list of other veterans of Washington's budget wars, including Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, a former Senate Budget Committee chief.
"There are lots of constituencies for spending money," said Giaimo in an interview, "but very, very few for saving it, and it needs all the help it can get."
Giaimo said he and Bellmon began discussing the idea before they retired at the end of the 96th Congress. Although the group is still in the formative stages, Giaimo said he expects it to be strictly non-partisan and a steer clear of guns-vs.-butter fights, concentrating instead on support for the budget control process as such.
He said it will seek business and labor support. In addition to Muskie, those expressing initial interest include Carter administration budget chief James McIntyre and James Lynn, the Ford administration's budget director, as well as former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.).