"I think it is more disgusting than ever this year," said Rep. Carl D. Perkins (D-Ky.), whose 34 years in the House have lifted him to the chairmanship of the Education and Labor Committee. "I choose to participate as little as possible in the budget process."
Perkins is not alone. The budget debate that is supposed to reach its climax today has dominated congressional proceedings all year, but in an important break with the past, in some ways a handoff of power, many senior members, even committee chairmen, have remained on the sidelines.
That does not mean they are indifferent to what has been going on.
"The whole budget thing has been a disappointment," Interior Committee Chairman Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) said yesterday. "We're involved so much in that process, we don't have time to do legislation."
In a similar vein, Appropriations Committee Chairman Jamie L. Whitten (D. Miss.) remarked that as one of the cosponsors of the original budget act, he is finding the process increasingly "unworkable."
Jabbing a finger at the House floor, where members were winding their tortuous course through three dozen pending amendments, Whitten said, "They're dealing with figures that are based on speculation, assumption and hallucination -- and making people think they are real."
Moreover, he said, the budget process -- once again running behind its self-imposed deadlines -- is interfering with Congress' real work of appropriating money for the operations of government.
"We have nine [appropriations] bills ready to mark up," Whitten said, "but we can't move them until the House and Senate pass the first budget resolution."
What the House is debating now is a resolution setting tax and spending goals for the fiscal year that will begin Oct. 1. The resolution instructs the committees to tailor programs under their jurisdiction to conform with these goals and to that extent circumscribes their power.
The legislative and appropriations committee chairmen have territorial reasons of their own for resenting the usurpation of the eight-year-old Budget Committee. But even those who staunchly defend the new institution are critical of the way it is operating this year.
Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) is one of its creators. As Rules Committee chairman, he set the procedures for this year's budget fight and presided over the marathon debate.
"I think there is much more opportunity for the members to participate in shaping this year's budget than last year," he said, "but it is still a makeshift process. You can't repair the damage of last year overnight."
In 1981, President Reagan and budget director David A. Stockman seized effective control of the congressional budget process and, in two key votes, forced through changes in spending patterns and basic legislation that would otherwise have been subject to lengthy and scattered committee wrangling.
Bolling complained bitterly at the time about the exploitation of the "reconciliation process" -- the part of the budget act that compels committees to tailor programs and spending to meet the budget limits. He called it "a gross distortion of the intent of those who wrote the Constitution . . . as well as the intent of the 1974 budget act."
Even Stockman, while defending its use, acknowledged that it "makes it extremely difficult for committee chairmen and their members to play their traditional roles."
This year, the administration's role has been much less heavy-handed, mainly because Reagan's own budget was rejected by the Republican Senate. After that rebuff, he let Republicans in the Senate and House draft their own budgets, in consultation with the administration, and -- with a victory in the senate last week -- has confined himself to low-key telephone lobbying for the showdown vote expected today between the GOP and Democratic plans in the House.
But even with the administration backing off, complaints about the budget process have been insistent enough that Bolling has named a task force of Democrats and Republicans, under Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Calif.) to prepare recommendations for revisions in the process next year.
This year's budget debate is plainly adding to the pressures for change. Bolling and others are concerned that unless there is an improvement, the whole budget process could be killed by a rebellion from those who feel it is taking over everything in Congress.
There are two basic complaints. One is that the process as now operating, in Udall's words, "absorbs too much of the time and energy of Congress. It made sense to spend a couple of months at the start of each year sorting out our budget priorities, but last year and this, we have found that the only thing we ever have time to do is fight about the budget."
The second complaint is that the fight -- especially this year -- is more than a bit phony. In an effort to assure all the factions in the House that they would have a fair chance to get their favorite provisions to a vote, Bolling concocted the most complex rule ever devised for budget consideration.
His motive, he acknowledges, was to avoid the political and public relations disaster Democrats would suffer if the House failed to muster a majority to pass any budget in the midst of the severe economic slump.
But it has meant, as Perkins complained, that "Democrats are permitted to amend the Republican budget and Republicans are permitted to amend the Democratic budget, to the point that there's not a dime's worth of difference."
Thus, in many members' eyes, a process that was supposed to clarify national priorities has been turned into a political camouflaging device.
That feeling fuels the demand for rethinking -- and perhaps revising -- the budget game.