Recent congressional actions on appropriations measures have posed a serious threat to the integrity of the legislative process. The immediate disputes over funding levels should not be allowed to obscure the longer-term procedural issues. What we have at stake is not a power struggle between Congress and the president, or between Democrats and Republicans. The real stake is in maintaining our constitutional system of checks and balances, which ensures a full measure of accountability to the public for federal spending decisions. Accountability means putting specific spending figures into laws and having members of Congress stand up and be counted on where to cut and where to add.
The most recent threat to constitutional checks and balances came in the continuing resolution passed by the Congress last Friday. The press and the public have focused on the funds cut by that resolution and paid too little attention to the methods by which it would be carried out. The language of the resolution requires the president to make a 4 percent cut in spending for domestic programs in five large appropriation areas. Within each spending account, the administration may decide to cut a particular program or activity by anywhere from zero to 6 percent as long as the overall account is reduced by 4 percent. In the floor debate in the Senate, however, it was clarified that Congress expects the administration to seek approval for any particular cut that deviates from the 4 percent.
Not all the detailed decisions made in the appropriations bill are made by the president. Anyone who has worked through appropriations bills knows that only a few major decisions, like the B1 bomber or Social Security benefits, are actually made by the president. Most of the 1-, 5-, or 50-million-dollar decisions are made by mid-level bureaucrats in the agencies or in OMB. Those bureaucrats have some professional judgments about what is good for the country; they also have personal opinions, whims and pet projects, like anyone else. But those bureaucrats do not have to go home to 50 states and 435 congressional districts to defend their decisions or see the results. The legislative process may be cumbersome, but it is tremendously open to the public. Once the president's budget proposals come out, members of Congress--particularly those of us on the Budget and Appropriations committees--get a flood of firsthand information about the details of those programs. Farmers tell us which pest control program works and which should be scrapped. Parents and schoolteachers tell us which education programs are effective. Local officials and concerned citizens tell us what will happen if we delay or proceed to build a new road or park. While congressional revision of administration proposals sometimes reflects the protection of special interests, to a greater degree it reflects the role of the American public in shaping legislation.
The only way the public can hold members of Congress accountable for spending is by requiring them to stand up and be counted on specific budget figures, whether they be cuts or increases. It is far too tempting to be able to stand up and tell each group--farmers, schools, retirees, defense--that you voted for full funding of their program, but then turn around and say you voted for a balanced budget, because you gave the president the authority to withhold 5 or 10 percent. No one would know what you really stood for. That is what we had before the 1974 Budget Act. Members voted for individual spending bills, but never had to vote on the bottom-line total. The result was massive spending and huge deficits.
Impoundment authority would also undermine public accountability of the president. He could submit a budget that made all his major constituents happy--and all presidents like to make people happy--by not detailing his proposed cuts. He could then request a 5, 10 or 25 percent cut authority to hold down the total. No one would even really know what the budget for a program was, or who had cut it. The full funding figure would be printed in the books, but somehow it would not get spent. That may be the easy way out for politicians, but it is not a good way to let the public grade the people it elects.
Tough as this year's budget decisions are, next year's will be even worse. At the Budget Committee we are looking at federal deficit projections ranging from $92 billion in 1982 to $165 billion in 1984. The American people are still being told that they can have only good things --a 25 percent tax cut, a big national defense buildup and painless cuts of waste and fat in domestic programs.
Moving to a balanced budget is going to require telling the American people that they cannot have all these things at once. Cutting back tens of billions of dollars in federal spending is going to require hard decisions that many politicians would rather avoid. Making those cuts in a fair and efficient manner is going to require that the public be given a full chance to participate by means of the legislative process, and that members of Congress continue to listen to the wisdom of the public.