President Reagan said yesterday that he "never favored" a provision in the recently passed Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced-budget legislation that triggers automatic spending cuts if the president and Congress fail to meet deficit-reduction targets.
In an interview with bureau chiefs of independent television networks, Reagan was critical of the "sequestration" provision in the new law that would result in automatic cuts -- evenly divided between defense and domestic spending -- if the annual targets are not met.
"I hope we never have to come to that," Reagan said. "If the Congress will cooperate with us in making the cuts that have to be made where we have selection over them, we'll never have to resort to that sequestering of programs in which you just automatically go in with a meat ax approach and they're automatically cut. I never favored that part of the legislation at all."
Reagan said what he did favor in the bill were set targets for reducing the deficit by fiscal 1991, "a disciplinary measure."
When Congress was writing the bill, Reagan did not publicly object to the automatic cuts. In signing it into law Dec. 12, Reagan praised the "landmark legislation" and said, "From here to the end of the decade, mandated cuts can put the deficit on a declining path and eliminate governmental overspending by 1991."
Some lawmakers have described the automatic spending cuts as a "club" to force Congress and the president into action on the deficit. The automatic cuts would slice into domestic spending that Democrats want to keep and into defense spending Reagan wants to protect.
The president has said he will meet the $144 billion deficit target for next fiscal year by proposing domestic spending cuts, no tax increase and a 3 percent increase above inflation in defense spending.
However, Congress is likely to insist on different priorities, and if an impasse results, the automatic cuts will be triggered for the fiscal 1987 budget. The automatic cuts are already triggered for this fiscal year.
In his remarks yesterday, Reagan appeared to be suggesting that he would lay the blame on Congress if the automatic spending cuts are triggered. Congress holds the power of the purse, he said: "The president, under the Constitution, can't spend a nickel and it's all dictated."
Reagan said, "I squirm a little when they keep calling it the president's budget," which he claimed is only what the agencies estimate it will cost for programs passed by Congress. Reagan did not mention his own strong efforts to shape the nation's fiscal priorities since 1981.
Late yesterday, the Justice Department criticized provisions of the balanced-budget law in a brief filed with the federal court scheduled to hear the issue Friday.
The department repeated its position that a suit brought against the government by 12 congressmen ought to be thrown out on grounds that the lawmakers lack standing to bring the suit. The department contended the congressmen could not demonstrate that they have been injured by the law.