"Weinberger Then and Now"--demands a response. I have rarely seen so short a piece in need of so much correction. It ignores and implicitly rejects the constitutionally prescribed method for enacting legislation; misrepresents both the immediate purpose and the longer-term effects of the congressional budget process, which were to raise overall spending levels instead of lowering them; and distorts the records of the administrations in which I have been privileged to serve.
The Constitution provides for the president's participation in the legislative process both by recommending bills for consideration to Congress and by exercise of the veto power. A president who vetoes legislation does not thereby "set his own will above the law," as Broder suggests; to the contrary, he carries out his constitutional responsibility to determine what the law shall be. Broder's concern that the operation of this constitutionally established scheme, which has been in place for almost two centuries, may "subvert the congressional budget process," which was developed less than a decade ago, stands our system of government on its head. It is the congressional process that must accommodate to the constitutional scheme, not the other way around.
Broder's equating the exercise of the veto power with a "the-laws-be-damned" attitude is yellow journalism of the crudest sort, and his reference to President Reagan as "another president who sets his own will above the law" because he has threatened to use his veto power is both absurd and shameful. In fact, I regard that as one of the most maliciously erroneous remarks I have seen in all the years I have read about President Reagan.
The column starts by stating that I "understood the importance of enforceable spending ceilings" for the federal budget as a whole when I was director of OMB, and it assumes that I now no longer understand it. The evidence for this is that I do not worship with the faithful at the altar of the congressional budget process. I never have, and the reason is that I understand the importance of enforceable spending ceilings, which the congressional process does not provide. What it does provide is elastic, nonbinding spending levels at the start and a process for ratifying appropriations in excess of those levels at the end--a "Rube Goldberg machine" if ever there was one, as President Reagan has said.
It is fashionable now, particularly among journalists and in Congress, to point to the budget process as a method of imposing fiscal discipline on the federal budget. The origins of the process are, however, far more ambiguous than this view acknowledges, and with the exception of the 97th Congress, which was dominated by President Reagan and deemphasized the "congressional" in the "congressional budget process," there is little in the history of the process to support it.
In fact, the question for Congress in the early '70s, before the budget process was established, was not so much one of disciplining overall spending levels as of who would dictate those levels--Congress or the president. The record shows that for three budgets developed while I was deputy director and director of OMB--FY 72 to FY 74--the president established and enforced those levels rigidly. Overall spending was kept within $1.5 bil lion of the budget in each of the three years, and came in below the budget in two of the three years:
The president enforced fiscal discipline principally through two devices--vetoes and impoundments. Congress disapproved of both devices and, in establishing its budget process in 1974, prohibited impoundments altogether and, as Broder's article demonstrates, attempted to diminish the effectiveness of vetoes by implying that they are at least faintly improper in the context of the new procedures. Congress claimed to have replaced these presidential controls with its own reconciliation process, to which the column refers. In view of the continued existence of the veto power, however, it is simply wrong to assume that the reconciliation process is the exclusive legitimate source of fiscal discipline. It is Congress' method and not a very effective method at that; the president retains the veto.
If the reconciliation process worked to discipline overall spending, of course, it would not matter whether Congress or the president controlled it. Regrettably, however, the process has characteristically resulted in precisely what it was intended to when it was adopted in 1974: Congress has been able to im pose higher overall spending
levels than the president has
sought in his budget:
With the exception of FY 82, when President Reagan controlled the process and outlays were $11 billion below what President Carter had proposed, the pattern of $40 billion increases holds. In fact, even FY 82 is consistent with the pattern, if we recall that Congress did not actually consider the budget submitted by President Carter. The budget submitted by President Reagan in March 1981, which Congress acted on, increased by $33.1 billion over the president's request of $695.3 billion.
I am opposed to the congressional budget process because as a rule it fails to hold down overall spending levels, not as Broder suggests because it succeeds in doing that. It does not succeed and, more seriously, it makes it more difficult for the president to succeed. In reclaiming the constitutional veto power, however, President Reagan has served notice that he will restore discipline to the budget process, even if Congress will not. It is high time.
Finally, I should respond briefly to the assertion that I have changed my mind about the desirability of holding down overall spending levels because this presently has an adverse impact on this administration's request for the defense budget. I have said enough here to show that I favor today, as I have over the years, "effectivecontrol over total spending." I also favor today, as I have over the years, a strong national defense. During my time at OMB, I consistently supported more spending for the defense budget than Congress appropriated. I regret to find myself in the same position 10 years later. Ten years ago, I also consistently felt that Congress was appropriating more money overall than the economy could support. The figures proposed in the budget resolution before Congress persuade me that it would do so again, if the president does not use, or at least offer to use, his veto power. I supported the use of the veto power to hold down overall spending levels 10 years ago, and I support it today.
There does not seem to me to be any "political opportunism" or "shifting ground" in this record. In asking Sen. John Tower to provide in the defense authorization bill the money needed to protect our national security, I am not telling Congress to "forget about" overall spending levels; nor is the president. In fact, the entire administration is strongly urging Congress to cut back sharply on domestic spending so a proper ceiling can be adhered to. We are also urging enough military spending to enable us to meet the real security needs of the country. My letter to Sen. Tower is not "defi ance" of the law; it is based on the idea that a process that relies on rubber budget ceilings, and permits appropriations committees to shift amounts previously allocated to a function up or down, is not an effective process for disciplining federal spending in any event. The track record of the last 10 years bears this out.
As for "having it all my way," sadly, no one who has been long in public life could claim so much. I have always felt a responsibility, nonetheless, at least to have people understand what my position is and why I hold it. Broder's statement that by so doing I am putting my will "above the law," or that the president is, seems to me to undermine seriously his reputation for intellectual and political integrity.ITORIAL
A Break in the Italian Pattern
THE ITALIAN election returns