In his State of the Union address Monday night, President Reagan received an enthusiastic response from members of Congress when he held aloft copies of three budget measures weighing nearly 50 pounds and vowed he would not sign another massive catchall spending bill.
Republicans and Democrats signaled that few of them want to repeat the experience of December, when virtually the entire government's fiscal agenda for the year was patched together and jammed through both chambers in a mad rush to adjournment.
But for all their desire to get Congress back on the budget track this year by passing its 13 regular appropriations bills instead of one huge spending measure, members of both parties and both houses say that Reagan's chances of achieving more significant changes in the budget process are virtually nil.
In his speech and accompanying legislative message, Reagan asked Congress to approve a host of changes in that process -- few if any of which stand a chance of passage.
Among the hardy perennials on Reagan's wish list are line-item veto authority and a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. Other proposals include a biennial budget process, a requirement that appropriations bills be sent to the White House individually, a measure forcing Congress to approve or disapprove presidential requests to cancel spending previously authorized by Capitol Hill, and a constitutional amendment requiring more than a simple majority vote to pass bills raising taxes.
But while almost everyone in Congress believes the budget procedures are cumbersome, even unworkable, most are unwilling to change the process if it means giving up power to the executive branch.
Congressional unwillingness to change is intensified by the atmosphere of confrontation that has enveloped the White House and Congress over the past seven years.
"The real problem is not the process," said House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III (D-Pa.). "The real problem has been the battle over priorities."
Gray also noted that Reagan and his first budget director, David A. Stockman, discovered how to use budget reconciliation measures to get spending cuts they couldn't achieve through regular legislation. Gray said Congress has only turned the tables on that game, sending monstrous spending bills to force Reagan to accept Democratic priorities or risk a government shutdown and his military buildup.
Not even Reagan allies have much hope of Reagan winning major changes. Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.) said there is "no great prospect" for the line-item veto or balanced-budget amendment.
Added Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, "We've never been able to make a political issue out of our procedures."
But members of both parties see a real chance to pass individual appropriations bills this year -- more the result of last year's budget summit that settled most disputes in advance than of any new sense of responsibility or embarrassment.
Some lawmakers said Reagan may be able to win his challenge that Congress cancel some of the more egregious special projects. But lawmakers said "pork barrel" tendencies are a minor part of the problem. Eliminating them "won't eliminate a $175 billion deficit," said Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).