The House has adopted a budget resolution putting itself on record as supporting record peacetime increases in defense spending, substantial cuts in programs for the poor and a deficit in the range of $100 billion next year. This is neither good policy nor a very plausible prediction of the eventual outcome of this year's budget process. The action, however, serves the useful purpose, for House members, of shielding them from administration jibes blaming their inaction for the current economic situation.
House and Senate conferees must now meet to reconcile differences in their resolutions. This won't be easy. The Senate resolution calls for almost $20 billion more in spending next year than the House version and a deficit $16 billion higher. Part of this discrepancy comes from a certain amount of flim- flam in the House resolution needed to bring its deficit estimate below the magic $100 billion level. But there are real--and important--differences in the allocation of spending between the two plans.
The Senate, for example, would take much of its savings from curbing government pay and cost-of- living adjustments in pension programs. The House would make smaller reductions in these expenditures--about $14 billion less over the next three years--and instead cut entitlements for the poor and discretionary domestic programs by about $35 billion more over the same period.
The Senate, however, is also under pressure to agree on a budget resolution so as to get its conservative flank in line for the impending vote on raising the debt ceiling. This should bring a relatively speedy splitting of differences with the House-- without much attention to what that may imply for subsequent legislative and appropriation actions.
That is why a resolution agreement would be only a temporary lull in the budget battle. A budget resolution, after all, is not a legislated program of spending and taxes. It is only the dim shadow on the wall of the cave--a faint reflection of a reality yet to be discerned. When the time comes for the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees to report out the bills needed to increase taxes and to cut aid to families and the aged--or for the agriculture committees to curb farm supports and food stamps--new fighting can be expected.
The discipline of budget reconciliation can be invoked to try to keep the committees in line, but without the political momentum of last year--and last year's promised sweetner of voting tax cuts to follow--it's not likely that the process will work with last year's precision. Even with last year's discipline, afterall, the deficit voted in the budget resolution turned out to be less than a third of the actual deficit for this year.
Congress can take credit for having adhered to the ritual of its set budget procedures at a time when many feared those procedures would disintegrate. It can also feel proud of having done so in the unprecedented circumstances of having--for all intents and purposes--no presidential budget to work from as guidance. But next year's budget is far from settled.