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Reform looks attractive to budget-weary Congress

Mention the words ``budget process'' to a member of Congress, and get ready for a tirade. Or a groan. Everybody seems to have something bad to say about the procedure lawmakers use to decide how to spend the taxpayers' money. ``It's a farse,'' bellows Sen. William Armstrong (R) of Colorado. ``It's a drag,'' charges Rep. William Gray III (D) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Budget Committee. Observes House Majority Leader Thomas Foley (D) of Washington, with typical understatement: ``It does not display Congress at its most graceful.''

As a result, the federal budget process seems ripe for reform this year. The White House wants to overhaul the budget process. So do Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who have floated various proposals to streamline and fortify the process. Any of the plans could have far-reaching implications for the way the federal government operates.

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Some have proposed putting the Congress and the White House on a two-year budget cycle, so as to reduce the frenzy that seems to accompany the budget-related activities of the legislature. Others have proposed changing congressional accounting procedures, so that lawmakers can keep a sharper eye on the fiscal consequences of their budget decisions. Everyone seems to be talking about fashioning some sort of provision to the Gramm-Rudman balanced budget act that would restore the automatic budget-cutting mechanism struck down by the Supreme Court last year.

Republicans and White House officials are once again talking up the idea of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. At the same time, they want to increase the President's influence in Congress's budget deliberations.

It is unclear which of these proposals will actually be put into effect. Former White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan said last fall that budget reform would be a top priority of the Reagan administration during its final years. But the Iran-contra affair intervened, and the White House may no longer have the political clout to pursue some of the controversial changes they seek.

In Congress, budget reform proposals have bloomed like crocuses. But the profusion suggests that most will have a difficult time passing muster. A few observers suggest that all the talk about budget reform may be little more than a catharsis for lawmakers frustrated by the grim choices they must make if the deficit is to be reduced.

``It's just a lot of goo-goo,'' fumes Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. ``We all like to talk about budget reform when we don't want to talk about the budget itself.''

Even some long-time advocates of budget reform worry that the talk about process changes may distract from the immediate task before lawmakers: reducing the federal deficit.

``I think, for now, they should use the tools they have to bring down the deficit,'' says Alice Rivlin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office. Adds Senate Budget Committee chairman Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida: ``We can pass all kinds of process reform and that won't solve anything if we don't have the will to make the tough choices and reduce the deficit.''

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The present system has its virtues. Both houses of Congress, for example, must agree on a blueprint for the next year's federal spending - called a budget resolution. This provides lawmakers with a bird's eye view of spending and revenue for the federal government. It sets out the federal balance sheet in stark terms and, consequently, has focused political attention on the federal deficit.

In theory, at least, the system is efficient. Authorizing committees are supposed to use the budget resolution to decide which programs should be funded, while the appropriations committees are supposed to take the recommendations of the authorizing committees and actually fund the programs.

In reality, however, deadlines are ignored, budget and economic estimates dance, and havoc is wreaked on the efforts of lawmakers to reduce the conflicting priorities of American politics to a fiscal statement. In recent years, the White House and Congress have spent months playing chicken, each waiting for the other to budge on numerous points.

The process begins in January, when the President sends up his budget proposal, and rambles on until the approaching Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year; the prospect of the shutdown of government services in the event new spending bills are not passed forces everyone to some sort of agreement.

``It just stretches on and on and makes people miserable,'' says White House Budget Chief James Miller III. ``It's like having to do your taxes not just once, but all year long.''

Increasingly, the agreement comes at such a late date that the individual spending bills that keep the federal government in business are wrapped up into catch-all ``continuing resolutions.'' The result is a year-end spray of numbers whizzing past the often uncomprehending eyes of lawmakers.

``It's out of control,'' Donald Regan complained in a speech last week. ``[Congress] doesn't know what it's spending, why, or when.''

Those were the sorts of complaints that led Congress to overhaul the budget process once before.

In 1974, it created the budget committees and introduced the budget resolution. The idea was to instill some discipline into the budget process, and give members of Congress the blueprint of overall government spending. Lawmakers also hoped to wrest some budget authority from President Richard Nixon, who precipitated a confrontation with Congress over spending.

Some argue that the deficit would be worse than it is now if Congress had not revamped the budget process. Nevertheless, the US accumulated a $544 billion deficit before the 1974 reforms; since then, it has added an additional $1.4 trillion to that total.

To put a stop to those mounting deficits, Congress attempted to put teeth into the budget resolution in 1985 by passing the Gramm-Rudman law.

The law specifies steadily reducing deficits over a five-year period, until the budget is balanced in 1991. To ensure that its annual deficit targets were met, the law included an automatic budget-cutting provision that would cut defense and domestic programs to bring the deficit into line if Congress and the President were unable to agree on a budget that would do so.

The Supreme Court struck down that provision last year on constitutional separation-of-powers grounds. Now Congress and the White House are grappling with various proposals to put a budget-slashing mechanism back into place.

But such efforts have become intertwined with other political considerations. House Democrats, for example, who once bitterly opposed Gramm-Rudman, now say they support the restoration of some sort of automatic trigger. By leaving open the prospect of drastic automatic cuts in defense spending, they hope to force the President into a concession on higher taxes, which he has adamantly opposed.

Likewise, White House officials are plugging for various reforms. They want the budget resolution to require presidential approval, thus enhancing the president's political leverage as Congress settles on spending priorities. They also want Congress to enhance the president's power to order spending cuts and to grant him the authority to veto individual parts of a bill, without having to veto the entire bill.

But Democrats are wary of supporting such proposals, and sense that the administration is using budget reform as a ruse to advance another agenda. ``They want to expand the President's power at the expense of Congress's prerogatives,'' says Representative Gray.

Nevertheless, dissatisfaction with the budget process has risen to such a bi-partisan crescendo that some changes, sometime, seem certain. Indeed, there are some areas of universal agreement: All sides seem to agree that the budget process should be put on a two-year, rather than annual, cycle.

``Maybe this September, when we nail down the budget, we'll emerge with some grand compromise budget-reform package,'' muses the White House's Mr. Miller. Others, noting the institutional inertia that argues against dramatic change, are not so sure.

``It'll happen sometime, but these things take years,'' says Senate Budget Committee member Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, noting several failed attempts to reform Congress's sprawling committee system.

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