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How to profit from the veto

November 24, 1981



President Reagan's veto of a $428 billion emergency spending bill will have a salutary effect if it keeps the issue focused on the complicated US government budgeting process - and not just the politics involved in the matter of whether Congress made the right ''mix'' of cuts to meet specific reductions sought by the White House.

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That both Mr. Reagan and Congress are locked in a test of political wills is hardly surprising, given the ideological differences between a Republican White House and a Democratic House, as well as sharp institutional cleavages stemming from a Congress that has sought to assert its independence from all presidents during the past decade.

But what is fundamental in the current drama, it would seem, is two-fold: First, neither the White House or Congress must let the vital services of the federal government grind to a halt because of their momentary impasse. Second, it is imperative that budgeting by ''continuing resolution'' not be allowed to become institutionalized.

Having noted that, however, it is also clear that both parties to the dispute must share the blame in the current brouhaha. According to terms of the landmark Budget Act of 1974, which sets the deadlines for the budgeting process, Congress is supposed to complete all appropriation bills by the seventh day after Labor Day, with action on a second budget resolution to be finished by Sept. 15. Congress had completed action on only one appropriations measure going into the past week - a measure that funds Congress itself. The White House, for its part, had not sent along its revised budget requests until late September, thus inhibiting action in the Senate.

Still, the larger issue involved is the extent to which the US should be subjected to government by ''continuing resolution.'' As President Reagan noted in his veto message, this is the second year in a row that lawmakers have sought to fund the government through that process rather than through formal appropriations bills.

Yet continuing resolutions, which are usually based on somewhat complicated formulas split between the two branches of Congress, do not reflect either the actual will of Congress or the White House. And, as the President pointed out, they provide a tempting opportunity for lawmakers to ''bust the budget'' by voting for more in a ''stopgap'' resolution than they would have done in an actual appropriation bill. In fiscal year 1981, for example, a hefty portion of total government spending was undertaken through continuing resolutions. Appropriations bills for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education were never enacted.

According to the Atlantic Monthly, Budget Director David Stockman, in discussing the federal budget process, conceded that ''none of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers.'' He then lamented that there are ''so many different budgets out and so many different baselines and such complexity now in the interactive parts of the budget. . . .''

Mr. Stockman's woe - indeed, the concern of many Americans - is amply underscored by the contest now taking place between Congress and the White House. At the least, all parties involved should get their act together and follow the requirements that are set forth in the congressional Budget Act.