When congress passed the capacious resolution continuing government spending two weeks ago, it gave the administration an unprecedented degree of freedom to decide how to make almost $4 billion in domestic spending cuts. There was considerable apprehension about this departure from Congress' traditional insistence on tight control over the allocation of federal money, but the Republican leadership decided that the compromise was necessary to get quick agreement on the spending targets the president demanded.
Voting for unspecified budget cuts is a generally bad business since the practice lets Congress of the hook with its constituents. If someone shrieks when his favorite program gets the ax, a senator or representative can point to the printed appropriation totals -which don't show the final cuts -as evidence that he had no intention of supporting so heinous a result. High administration officials are also provided with a bit of cover since, as a practical matter, the final assignment of detailed cuts will have to be worked out within each agency.
The actual effect of the discretionary authority on spending patterns may not, however, be large. Some separate appropriation bills have been signed into law since the resolution passed, and these override the language of the spending resolution. The appropriations that accunt for most domestic spending, however, are likely to be governed by the discretionary authority for the remainder of the year. Enen so, the administration will be limited by language in the laws specifying that the average cut for each large account must be about 4 percent and that no project or program within an account may be cut by more than 6 percent.
Since many appropriation accounts are huge, that still leaves an agency with considerable leeway to protct favorite programs -especially if they're small -while concentrating losses on a few large areas. To prevent htat, Senate Approprations Committee Chairman Mark Hatfield indicated in the floor debate that he expected the adminstration to seek approval from the appropriations committees for any specific program cut deviating from the 4 percent average. OMB has indicated, however, that it does not intend to respect that request, if only because of the paper work it would involve. Each agency will work out its own scheme of allocating the cuts, subject to OMB review.
A wise agency will diviate from the pro rata cuts only with extreme caution. An unwritten but hallowed st of conventions dictates that an agency failing to gain approval from the appropriations committees for any substantial diviation from the committees' expectations is likely to pay for its indiscretion the next time its appropriations are considered. That may not seem like much of a threat to novice officials, who have seen the sppropriations committees reduced to relative impotence in the last budget go-round. But they may also want to consider whether they really wish to invite the pleadings of a host of interest groups by opening up room for bargaining.
How dangerous is the new dicretion? As a practical matter, it probably won't matter very much -especially if the appropriations committees watch the process with the attention it deserves. A a precedent, however, it is bad.