House Democrats and Republicans are readying forces for what looks to be an imminent shoot-out over next year's budget resolution. To the frazzled participants in months of preliminary maneuvering and weeks of floor debate, the question of who wins may seem less important than that the matter be finally settled. But it does matter.
When House attempts to reach a compromise broke down at the end of May, the amended versions of the two main competing proposals--the House Budget Committee proposal and the Republican leadership's alternative--didn't seem that far apart in gross terms. Both promised deficits much below those implied by the Reagan administration's budget--about $105 billion next year and considerably less in the following years. What makes compromise so difficult is that the details behind these totals are very different.
Both budgets called for huge increases in defense procurement and operations, but the Democratic alternative restrained real growth to about 7 percent. The Republican alternative shaved some off the president's request, but it did that at the cost of alienating the party's hard-liners. Both called for large new cuts in domestic spending, but the Republican version proposed cutting billions more from cash, food and medical aid for poor families and the elderly as well as popular education and housing programs. Both plans called for tax increases, but the Democrats wanted over $10 billion more.
The Republicans are hoping to make their moderate and conservative wings--with the help of Southern Democrats--into a winning faction. Their new alternative may appear to smooth out some of these differences between the groups. But the arithmetic of defense increases, tax cuts and irreducible domestic spending is such that the compromises are likely to be more cosmetic than real in terms of reducing the federal deficit. There is already a significant amount of budget fakery in the GOP alternative--unspecified savings, hoped-for revenues and the like. Adding more would make it even harder to translate whatever budget resolution passes into an operating budget.
It's important to remember in judging the outcome of the coming week's battle that passing the budget resolution is a necessary first step, but it is far from an assurance that fiscal policy has been put on a sound footing. Budget procedures can keep committees from appropriating money outside control targets. Most of the deficit reduction called for in either the Democratic or Republican resolutions, however, requires not just limiting appropriations but changing the terms of statutes that create entitlements and raise revenues. Without considerable bipartisan agreement--which doesn't now exist-- many of these changes won't become law.
Passage of a budget resolution would shore up the House's shaky reputation for fiscal responsibility, and it might offer some temporary solace to the jittery financial markets. But a budget resolution is not self- enforcing. Unless the particulars of the measure that is agreed upon can command the support of leaders in both parties, the budget resolution may be a dead document by the time the fall elections roll around. That's why it is important that the leaders of the opposing factions pay attention to more than vote counts as they prepare their last-ditch alternatives.