Chief sponsors of last year's Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-control law proposed yesterday to meet Supreme Court objections to the act by empowering the president's Office of Management and Budget to order any spending cuts required by the law to meet deficit targets.
The proposal ran into immediate objections from some House Democratic leaders, who said they prefer sticking by a fall-back provision in the existing law that requires Congress to enact the cuts.
A critical question, unresolved in the minds of many lawmakers, is whether the proposed change would transfer major purse-string powers from Congress to an executive branch agency that is frequently at odds with Congress over spending priorities.
In proposing the change, Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who sponsored the original law in concert with Sens. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), said it would give the OMB little more than what Gramm described as "green eyeshade" bookkeeping duties. Rudman said OMB would have some powers to impose its own judgments but would be limited both by congressional constraints and by public opinion from excessive action.
But House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) expressed concern about whether the law could be rewritten to meet the court's requirements without ceding too much policy-making power to OMB. "Until I get some firm answers, I'll be very hesitant to go that way. I would prefer Congress voting and making the decisions itself," he said in a telephone interview.
A Democratic leadership aide indicated that Gray reflected the prevailing viewpoint of the House Democratic majority. "Basically," the aide said, "they the Democrats don't trust OMB." But he also said it was possible that the proposed change could pass the House with some Democratic votes if it has solid Republican backing.
Gramm, Rudman and Hollings plan to try to attach the OMB proposal to debt-ceiling extension legislation that could come before the Senate next week. The House has passed the debt bill but must do so again if the Senate makes changes.
The budget law sets annual targets for deficit reduction and requires automatic spending cuts to meet the targets if Congress fails to do so. Under the original bill, the cutbacks would be ordered by the General Accounting Office. But the Supreme Court ruled out GAO, leaving Congress with the responsibility of ordering the cuts, which would have to be imposed in early October, one month before this fall's elections.