HERE COMES the Fiscal New Year, and President Reagan says that the country has no budget because of congressional delays. Can that be correct?
No, fortunately, it's not correct. The federal budget is in place. It's explicit and enforceable. It is the budget resolution that Congress passed last June. In a departure from earlier procedure, that June resolution becomes legally binding today -- saying that any bill violating its spending limits can be knocked down by the objection of any one member in either house.
What Mr. Reagan meant was that none of the appropriations bills has yet been passed. That's not desirable, but neither is it unprecedented. None of the appropriations bills had passed at this time last year, either. But with the budget resolution in place, appropriations bills do not set the level of spending for the federal government. They have to be fitted into the limits set by the resolution.
Mr. Reagan's purpose in making this dubious accusation was presumably to suggest to incautious listeners that congressional delays are somehow responsible for the general state of the national economy. Our own view is the opposite -- that Congress, particularly the Senate, has been more farsighted and courageous in fiscal policy this year than the administration.
The new congressional budget process, which has been in effect only since 1976, is still evolving -- but it is evolving in the right direction, toward greater precision and rigor. As it gets stronger, a lot of people are learning to dislike it. Some of them are congressional committee chairmen of both parties, who chafe at the restrictions that it imposes on their traditional power. Some are at the White House, which totally controlled the broad sweep of budget policy until this new procedure arrived. Now the president has to share it with Congress.
There are certainly defects in this new budget process -- although not nearly so severe as the defects in the old budget process. The present system does indeed tend to delay appropriations bills. Without them, the government runs on continuing resolutions like the one that Congress is now passing. That's nobody's idea of a good practice. But it's a way to keep a president from increasing spending. Deliberate delay is currently a weapon, for example, in the struggle over the size of the increase in defense spending. Another weakness in the budget process is its custom of basing calculations on excessively optimistic assumptions about the future growth of the economy. That's happened again this year. Some corrections are going to have to be made next spring, acknowledging the high deficit ahead.
But, despite suggestions that you may have heard from your highly placed source, there is a budget and it is in effect. It is, furthermore, a better budget -- more realistic, and less harsh -- than the original budget proposal that Mr. Reagan, last February, sent to Congress.