The members of the House of Representatives did much more than fail to adopt a budget last week. They supported amendments to unrealistically increase discretionary spending programs at the expense of defense (something President Reagan with his veto powers will not permit). They chose to ignore unacceptable growth in entitlement programs, particularly Social Security, Medicare and related programs. They supported amendments diliberately crafted to weaken an already nearly toothless budget process in favor of standing committees of the House . . . committees that have a tradition of all too often succumbing to special interest pressures for ever increasing spending programs.
Students of Congress know that we have a hemorrhaging budget, out of control and threatening our economy and well being. They know that remedial action to curb deficit spending by Congress will require a budget process with extraordinary tools such as reconciliation, deferred enrollment of spending bills and other restraints. They know that reliance on the regular standing committee process will be futile and will not result in budgetary restraint. Unfortunately, each committee views its programs as most vital to the national interest and consequently not proper subjects of restraint.
Turf battles are particularly bitter in the House, sometimes taking precedence over the national interest. The spending and taxing committees of Congress should welcome the budgetary discipline of the budget committees rather than look upon them as threats. The budget committees are too weak to threaten Congress' all-powerful appropriations or entitlement or tax committees.
And so last week the House sent out the messages: "We cannot adopt a budget. Spending will be increased. Congress will not take the necessary steps to put the economic house in order. Deficits in fiscal year 1983 will exceed $180 billion and will grow to almost $250 billion in fiscal year 1985. Deficits of a quarter-trillion dollars in one year! Higher interest rates with the deomonstrated constraints upon the necessary and required economic growth in real gross national product." These are the real messages the House has sent to the people.
The budget process is designed to force difficult political choices on Congress, to compel it to spend and tax in a restrained and disciplined manner, to oblige it to have regard for government deficits and for its corrosive effects on the economy. The budget process is not designed to captivate, to charm or enrapture members of Congress. It has no "goodies" to dispense. There are no special interest recipients of federal largess to protect it.
The real tragedy of last week's resounding defeat for the budget process was the joy with which substantial majorities, unable to agree on a budget, did agree to further weaken the budget resolution's capability to restrain the House's spending habits. They sure taught that uppity Budget Committee a lesson! Like kings of old, they killed the messenger. Now what do they do? Tell the American people that they are incapable of disciplining themselves? That they will not and cannot curb excessive spending?
Parenthetically it should be noted that in this same period the House, unable to vote budget restraints, did vote billions to subsidize mortgage interest payments. How irresponsible! The way to help the housing industry is to bring down real interest rates. And that means a responsible federal budget.
The Budget Act of 1974 was basically a contract whereby Congress agreed to curb its undisciplined spending habits and the president gave up his impoundment powers. If Congress now finds itself incapable of making the tough political decisions involved in curbing spending, then it will have to restore such powers to the president. It will have to give him the power to impound. Someone in our government must be able to act decisively in a crisis, to make the hard political decisions.
But we well know that the power to impound implies the setting of spending priorities. Clearly, Congress should not give up those powers to the president. But its only choice is to adopt a budget, and the only tool it has available is the budget process. The budget committees, weak and without constituents, serve at the pleasure of the leadership and deserve their confidence and support.
The House has had its temper tantrum. Now it must get down to the people's business and adopt a budget of restraint. Extraordinary times demand heroic actions and not politics as usual.