Ringing in a new fiscal year before the old is paid for
This is a scene you didn't see on television last night:
''It's 11:59 p.m., and here at the Treasury Building the crowd is getting restless. We've already had the traditional burning of the budget - with Secretary Donald Regan lighting the first match - and now the magic moment is approaching. People are cheering . . . they're waving their briefcases in the air . . . yes, the red ball is starting to move down the flagpole! 10, 9, 8 . . . here comes the confetti . . . 3, 2, 1 . . . Happy fiscal new year! Now, we take you to the ballroom of the Federal Reserve Building, where Paul Volcker is leading celebrants in a chorus of 'Auld Lang Deficit' . . . .''
Goodbye, FY '82. Oct. 1 is the beginning of the federal fiscal year, a day on which the US government theoretically starts working under a fresh, new budget.
Unfortunately, Congress isn't ready for the new year to begin. It hasn't passed all of the '83 budget. Then again, the '82, '81, and '80 budgets were never wrapped up, either.
The Treasury isn't quite sure yet how much money the government raised and spent last fiscal year. Through August, a Treasury official says, the US had collected $558,072,000,000, and spent $667,021,000,000 - meaning the deficit for the first 11 months of the year was $109 billion.
President Reagan's first budget proposed for FY '82 predicted a deficit of $ 27.5 billion. A year later, in February 1982, the administration estimate was $ 98.6 billion.
David Jones, a vice-president with bond dealers Aubrey G. Lanston & Co., estimates the final deficit will be about $115 billion.
In any case, the new budget isn't yet ready to take over.
All of the 13 regular appropriations bills for 1983, legislation that authorizes specific government spending, have yet to become law. To keep a cashless government from grinding to a halt, Congress has had to pass continuing resolution - a stopgap measure that will expire in early December. Legislators will hold a post-election lame-duck session to consider the regular spending bills.
But over the last few years Congress has become used to this careening, out-of-control process. Last year, none of the appropriations bills were finished by Oct. 1. Three of them never passed. Four continuing resolutions kept the government operating through fiscal 1982. Among others, the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Commerce, State, and Justice ran all year on ''temporary'' funding.
A one-day government shutdown, caused by a dispute between President Reagan and Capitol Hill over spending levels, cost the US between $80 million and $90 million in wasted time, according to a congressional report, though administration officials contend Mr. Reagan's insistence on a revised resolution shaved $2 billion from the budget.
In fiscal 1981, five appropriations measures never passed. In 1980, six were never cleared.
Since 1974, when the current budget process was put in place, appropriations bills haven't always stacked up like jets over La Guardia Airport. In the mid-' 70s, budget deadlines were either met or missed by only a few days.
But over the past few years, the politically unpalatable task of cutting the budget and shuffling spending priorities has set Congress further and further behind. This year, the first budget resolution, an overall target supposed to be set by May 15, was passed more than a month late.
Some blame the process itself. The House Rules Committee has set up a task force to study proposed changes in the way Congress authorizes government spending.
The Congressional Budget Office director, Alice M. Rivlin, testifying before the task force last week, said that ''the (budget) process has proved itself enormously resilient and adaptable in the face of extraordinary strains. It needs further strengthening but not basic change.''
Miss Rivlin suggests making the first resolution binding. At present, the target is nonbinding, only a target for Congress to shoot at. Reconciliation, the practice of lumping budget changes together in one package, should be strengthened, she says.
She also suggests Congress might consider a two-year budget timetable, to help avoid hasty budgetmaking, and automatic continuing resolutions, to eliminate the political brinkmanship that often occurs over these stopgap funding measures.