Cursed, ridiculed and blamed for virtually everything that goes wrong on Capitol Hill, the congressional budget process often is viewed as an instrument of torture that inflicts pain on victim and perpetrator alike.
One minute it appears to be the monster that is eating Congress, consuming everything in its path. The next minute it seems near death, enfeebled by tasks that exceed its ability to cope.
But the budget process lives on, seemingly in spite of itself, despite periodic talk of repeal, overhaul or total replacement. It is messy, time-consuming, inefficient and often mind-numbing in its complexity -- in other words, it is a quintessential creature of Congress.
Last week it creaked and groaned into action once again as the Senate Budget Committee, moving into a vacuum left by failure of the White House and Senate Republican leaders to meet their own deficit-reduction targets, produced a fiscal 1986 budget that came within striking range of the mark. Annual deficits, now exceeding $200 billion, would be cut almost in half within three years, starting with a $55 billion reduction to produce a deficit of $172 billion next year.
The committee also approved an enforcement mechanism that has produced results in the past, coupled with three-year spending "caps" that would for the first time nail down long-range expenditure cuts in defense and domestic programs.
This was only a few months after many lawmakers warned of the imminent demise of the budget process, noting that Congress barely managed to pass a budget before adjourning for last fall's elections.
To be sure, there was nothing pretty or tidy about what the Senate Budget Committee did or how it did it. And there is no guarantee that its handiwork will not unravel at the first tug.
During the six lengthy days the committee spent knitting the budget package, members could not even agree on the numbers they were using. And Democrats complained that the whole thing was phony -- a "covert budget," as Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) put it.
As a final vote approached, even the most attentive members had lost track of some programs. Did the budget include a hiring freeze for government workers, as tentatively approved earlier in the week? Not even Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) was certain.
Although appearing relieved that someone finally produced something, neither lawmakers nor White House officials rushed to hail the committee's final product, which hit virtually all the sensitive pressure points: no more than a cost-of-living increase for the Pentagon, not even that for Social Security beneficiaries, and cuts in other programs ranging from Amtrak to student loans and veterans' benefits.
The White House seemed most pleased by the omissions, mainly the lack of a tax increase. Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) praised Domenici's achievement but said it needs "some work." House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) termed it little more than a way for Senate Republicans to "get the monkey off their backs and throw it back to the full Senate and White House."
Many in both parties and both houses say they think that the Senate Budget Committee did little more than get the ball rolling, demonstrating that it is possible to assemble a plan that would reduce deficits by a total of nearly $300 billion over three years.
But, in overcoming the initial impasse on deficit reductions, the committee may have locked Congress back on a course that has consumed most of its energy since 1981, when the White House used the once largely overlooked budget process as its mechanism for shrinking the federal government.
The process was used -- some said abused -- to grease the skids for President Reagan's 1981 program of tax and spending cuts and has been employed since to force spending cuts and tax increases that Congress otherwise might not have made.
Now the budget process and its primary enforcement tool, known as "reconciliation," are being used again, despite vows of "never again" from those who say it perverts congressional procedures and produces sloppy results.
The budget process started out a decade ago as a compromise with then-president Richard M. Nixon. The executive branch would quit trying to impound, or not spend, congressionally appropriated funds if Congress would exercise a bit of fiscal self-discipline.
The 1974 Budget Control and Impoundment Act required Congress for the first time to come up with a budget of its own in which it looked simultaneously at spending and revenues and the difference between the two, namely the deficit.
First spending targets would be set, then binding ceilings. Authorization and appropriations bills would have to fall within the limits, or Congress would have to pay the political price of voting to exceed them.
For enforcement, both houses could force their authorizing committees to cut programs or raise taxes to conform (or "reconcile") with budget targets. The committees' recommendations would then be packaged into an omnibus "reconciliation" bill that could, as happened in 1981, combine nearly a whole year's work by Congress into one piece of legislation.
The reconciliation process was little used until Reagan took office but is now one of the most powerful engines of government -- or, more precisely, one of the sharpest tools for dismantling it.
More often than not, program cuts proposed through the reconciliation process have come close to meeting the instructions included in the budget. Aside from the Pentagon, scarcely any agency has escaped being squeezed by the process. This year it may be used for outright elimination of some programs. Moreover, the spending caps proposed by the Senate Budget Committee attempt for the first time to guarantee long-term Pentagon spending restraint.
Critics say the budget process has been perverted in the last four years, transformed from an internal mechanism for congressional self-discipline into a vehicle for implementing executive policy by short-circuiting normal procedures, such as separate consideration of authorization and appropriation bills for individual programs.
They contend that the process makes it too easy for a president to ram spending cuts through Congress, thus tipping the delicate balance of power in Washington and prejudicing policy in favor of government retrenchment.
But, so long as Reagan has remained popular and powerful enough to set the agenda in Congress, the critics have been unable to stop reconciliation.