A powerful group of House committee chairmen plans to introduce a sweeping proposal today to overhaul the congressional budget process and, among other things, stop Congress and the White House from periodically shutting down the government in their fights over spending.
The plan, designed to take effect after Congress convenes in early 1985, also would slow down the kind of budget-cutting blitz that President Reagan conducted over the past two years by eliminating some of the legislative shortcuts he took.
It would give regular legislative committees, who say they feel their turf has been trampled by the way the budget process has evolved, a greater voice in preparing and implementing the budget. But aides to the chairmen proposing the changes insisted that their bosses were only trying to "rationalize" the process, not "gut" it.
An apparently skeptical House Budget Committee Chairman James R. Jones (D-Okla.) said he had not seen the chairmen's proposal and was confident they would "not intentionally" undermine the budget process. But he added: "Should efforts be made to damage or destroy the process, I will use every weapon in my disposal to defeat such action." He said he would have the support of the House Democratic leadership in doing so.
"What it would do is put knowledge, responsibility and accountability back in the budget process," said Michael Kitzmiller, a senior aide to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), one of eight chairmen who have helped draft the plan over the past few months.
The others are Carl D. Perkins (D-Ky.) of Education and Labor, James J. Howard (D-N.J.) of Public Works and Transportation, William D. Ford (D-Mich.) of Post Office and Civil Service, Fernand J. St Germain (D-R.I.) of Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.) of Foreign Affairs, Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Calif.) of House Administration, and Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.) of Small Business.
Aides said some other committee chairmen may co-sponsor the proposal, which will be submitted to a House Rules Committee task force that is considering a proposed changes in the nearly decade-old congressional budget process.
To some extent, the chairmen's proposal would make binding the informal procedural changes that the Democratic-controlled House used in passing a budget that defied Reagan this year. Just as the House did this year, the proposal would require that chairmen of legislative committees be consulted so they can be involved intimately in the budget's development.
As explained by staff members, the plan also would:
* Free Congress of its almost year-round preoccupation with the budget by confining budget work to the start and end of each year, leaving at least four months in between for consideration of authorizations and appropriations.
* Make several major changes in the controversial "reconciliation" process, by which Congress forces its committees to make spending and tax changes to meet budget targets, including a new two-year, two-step process for considering changes in benefit entitlement programs that now can be forced through Congress in only a few weeks. Spending and tax changes could be ordered only for one year, compared with the three-year "reconciliation" orders that are common now.
* Require only one budget resolution a year, instead of the two resolutions that now set targets and then binding ceilings.
* Change the membership of the Budget Committee to include members appointed by the chairmen of each legislative committee as well as those designated by the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees and by the House leadership.
* Create new sanctions to prod budget, authorizing and appropriating committees to meet deadlines, including a provision that would continue agency and program funding at existing levels if money bills are not enacted by the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.
This would be a major departure from current law, providing what would amount to a permanent appropriation, under which all agencies of government could continue uninterrupted operations even when Congress failed to meet its funding deadlines.
With increasing frequency, Congress has not only failed to pass its appropriations bills on time but also, often in deadlock with the administration, missed deadlines for stopgap funding to tide the government over in the meantime.
As a result, the government has been threatened several times with shutdowns estimated to cost taxpayers millions of dollars in lost work time.