ACCORDING TO the budget schedule, by the end of next week congressional authorizing committees are to complete legislation turning the more than $35 billion in cuts voted in last month's budget resolution into real reductions in program benefits and services. In the House, the largest piece of the budget-cutting action -- more than $10 billion -- has been dealt to the Education and Labor Committee. Chairman Carl Perkins and many other members find this task so uncongenial that they have still not decided whether to take it on at all.
Should this committee fail to act, the job of cutting would fall to the House Budget Committee. With time short, it is likely that the Budget Committee would leave the administration proposals intact, providing only a slim chance for further change when the mammoth budget legislative package comes to the floor. This would be unfortunate.
It is true that Education and Labor has little room to maneuver. The budget process is such that it can only reorder the administration's spending priorities by trading among its own programs. Some obvious savings it might claim -- like restricting the scope of Davis-Bacon and other labor-protection statutes -- are "worthless" to it since the cost reductions will show up in other budget areas, such as defense. Lack of time for hearings and public debate further increases the general reluctance to make cost-saving changes in the basic terms of programs. Nonetheless, there are some changes the committee can and should make.
The most important would be to sharpen the formulas that distribute the big dollars in education and job programs so that what is left goes to the geographical areas that need it most. Requiring state and local matching of federal aid on an ability-to-pay basis would also stretch dollars. This would free up money to continue operation of the successful but now doomed job and training programs for low-income youth, welfare recipients and other special-problem groups.
The committee doesn't have to buy the administration's block grant approach to recognize that some housecleaning is in order. Some members may wish to preserve the skeleton of each program against the day when another government will put meat back on the bones. But it is time to ask whether all these special entities were ever worth operating from the federal level. This doesn't necessarily mean abandoning federal aid to low-income children and other groups unlikely to be served adequately by states. The better targets would be the heavily state-financed vocational education program, in which federal leverage is now very small, and education aid to areas with large military installations, which is properly a defense responsibility.
This would still leave the Education and Labor Committee with the unenviable job of making deep cuts in some very useful programs. But the committee will serve neither its constituencies nor the nation well if it fails to take what opportunity it has to soften the impact of those cuts on those people and areas that most need help.