A Bevy of Budget Reforms

ljacobso@njdc.com

If any one of a half dozen bills makes it through Congress, the insular and arcane world of federal budgeting may be in for some changes.

The Budget Process Reform Act, sponsored by Rep. C. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., and backed by at least 200 other Members, would--among its many provisions--keep the current, and oft-missed, April 15 deadline for passing a budget but would require passage of just a page-long document that outlines spending limits in 20 broad categories (excepting Social Security and interest on the federal debt). The President's more-detailed budget, and the inevitable haggling over appropriations details, would not be required until these broader goals were set into law.

Critics say the Cox bill--which has only 8 Democratic sponsors--would allow executive branch officals broad powers to unilaterally cut the budget. "I guess the polite description of it would be 'bizarre,' " said Robert D. Reischauer, a onetime head of the Congressional Budget Office who's now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It's not at all clear that it's constitutional, and if it were, it would be a radical restriction."

Advocates of the bill downplay this fear, noting that the bill clearly limits executive powers. The advocates add that some federal entitlements--most notably food stamps--already work under a similar system.

Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete V. Domenici of Arizona is taking a somewhat different legislative approach. Domenici would put Congress on a two-year budgeting cycle. During the first year, Congress would pass six-year spending guidelines and two-year appropriations and reconciliation bills; during the second, it would oversee programs and pass authorization bills.

Reischauer said that biennial budgeting is somewhat more popular among budgeters than Cox's bill is, but he added that it too comes with several drawbacks. If economic or political windows of opportunity happen to fall at the wrong time in the cycle, he said, lawmakers might have to forgo bold and timely steps; in addition, Reischauer added that he holds the somewhat fatalistic view that "conflict expands to fill whatever time is available."

Then there are the five bills--all sponsored by Republicans--that would automatically provide for continuing appropriations if Congress missed its appropriations deadline. The sponsors hope to avoid the messy (and to the GOP, politically damaging) government shutdown of 1995-96. Reps. Jim Bunning of Kentucky and George W. Gekas and John E. Peterson of Pennsylvania have all offered separate bills in the House. In the Senate, John McCain of Arizona has submitted two such bills.

Reischauer suggested that the benefits of such an approach--reducing partisan tension and public disgust--probably outweigh its drawbacks, which include giving advocates for causes that are about to lose funding a reason to stall, thereby assuring them a temporarily bigger budget than they might otherwise have gotten. But he added that many budget experts have spoken less kindly of the proposal than he has.

Robert Greenstein, executive director of the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, draws a firm distinction between Cox's bill and the others. "Only the Cox bill, in my view, actually runs the risk of posing serious damage to the U.S. economy," he said. "It effectively removes every automatic stabilizer by de-entitling every entitlement. I am persuaded that many members do not understand fully how radical it really is."

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