As Congress marches grimly through the annual rites of creating a budget, the volume of rebellious grumbling in the ranks grows louder. The required public procedure is unreasonably harsh and unforgiving, the troops complain. This ordeal goes on too long, they say, and requires too many truly unappealing votes. There are too many uphills, it is whined, and not enough downhills. The present procedure--the result of an extraordinary reform enacted in 1974--has placed new demands on Congress as an institution, and not everybody there welcomes them. In the past few weeks, as the quarreling over the substance of budget policy rose in pitch, the moaning over procedure has formed a swelling chorus in the background, as in a Verdi opera.
The essence of the new procedure is that Congress now has to vote not only on the separate appropriations, as it always did, but on the spending total as well--and, explicitly, on that fatal number, the deficit. You will not necessarily be suprised to hear that there are members of Congress, particularly among the Republicans, who preferred the old practice of voting for the spending bills and then blaming the resulting deficit on the president. Similarly there are members, particularly among the Democrats, who argue that the present procedure focuses such disproportionate attention on the purely fiscal effects of legislation that necessary expansion of social programs has become almost impossible. There's also a lot of resentment among the chairmen of the legislative committees at the power of the budget committees--created by that same 1974 reform--to impose limits on them.
But if you have doubts about the present system, it's useful to think for a moment about the process, or lack of it, before 1974. A president sent a budget to Congress, which promptly cut it into pieces and sent the fragments to the various committees, from which it was never reassembled. Total figures came only from the White House, and there was no one at the Capitol who could say with precision whether they were right or wrong. Most presidents liked it that way, and it was only in a period of collapsing presidential power, in the summer of Mr. Nixon's resignation, that Congress was able to accomplish fundamental reform.
It's not correct to say that the new budget process is collapsing. The present trouble arises for deeper reasons: more than half of the House refuses to raise taxes significantly, more than half of the House wants to raise defense spending rapidly and more than half of the House refuses to acknowledge the large deficit that results. The present process is responsible for this tension only in the sense that it requires Congress to add up the figures and draw an honest balance.
In response to this spring's budget quarrels, a variety of procedural cure-alls are circulating at the Capitol. There is a scheme for a two-year budget cycle, and another for a separate capital budget. There is the familiar constitutional amdendment to require a balanced budget, likely to come to a vote in the Senate before the end of this month. All of these devices have one thing in common--they would make the procedural tangle worse. But if Congress can find it's way to a rational answer on the substance of the budget, the procedural issues would easily settle themselves. Form, as a great architect once said, follows function.