Budget Making - and a Bit More
Lawmakers hang pet projects on bill designed to meet Gramm-Rudman deficit limitations. CONGRESS
WASHINGTON — TWO modest words - reconciliation and vacation - will have a powerful impact on Congress for the next few weeks. And they're related. Reconciliation is the annual summertime procedure Congress goes through to determine whether it is raising enough money and trimming enough programs to reduce the federal deficit as much as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law requires. This summer's target: Reduce next year's deficit to $100 billion.
But if history is any guide the final reconciliation bill will include not only a financial balancing act, but also several new federal programs that members of Congress realize could become law only if slipped into a broad budget bill.
That's a growing trend inside Congress that is increasingly criticized outside it.
Congress is likely to add to the final reconciliation bill proposals to reduce or delay the catastrophic care premium, hold down the soaring cost of payments to physicians in the government's medicare and medicaid health programs, and require the Social Security Administration to make a sizable effort to tell families of children who are poor and disabled about a federal program (supplemental security income) that can give them additional money.
In recent weeks Congress has been treading water on reconciling budget income and outgo.
``I don't see anything much going on,'' says veteran Congress-watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Congress is waiting for the administration's midyear estimate of how the US economy will perform during fiscal 1990, scheduled for release July 18.
Lawmakers have not wanted to make the tough choices on tax hikes and program cuts until it has this estimate, which will affect the expected size of the federal deficit.
Analysts say that Congress is far from deciding how to raise the $5.3 billion in additional revenue that current estimates say is needed.
Only ``relatively minor'' revenue-raising measures are being discussed, says Allen Schick, director of the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs.
That's where the issue of vacation comes in. Congress hopes to begin its annual late-summer break about the second week of August. But before it goes its leaders are likely to insist on significant progress toward reconciling the budget.
``The best impetus to breaking these logjams is to hold up these vacations,'' says Stephen Moore, a budget analyst with the Heritage Foundation. Like anyone faced with a fast-closing deadline, Congress frequently achieves a good deal just before a vacation.
But what it achieves in the final reconciliation measure is often controversial: In recent years Congress has added a lot of new or changed federal programs that never were intended to be there. ``They've turned increasingly to that process at the last minute, to lump everything into one huge bill that nobody has ever read and that the President has no choice but to sign,'' says Mark Liedl, director of Heritage's Congress Assessment Project.
Congress is not supposed to legislate via appropriations bills, Mr. Ornstein says. ``But,'' he adds, ``there's an awful lot of it that goes on'' in the reconciliation process. ``The temptation is enormous. The biggest power that Congress has is the power of the purse.''
Adding program changes to the reconciliation bill also is the way congressional committee chairmen have been returning some power to themselves after years of losing it to the Senate and House budget committees, now chaired respectively by Sen. James Sasser (D) of Tennessee and Rep. Leon Panetta (D) of California.
``All these committees have learned in the last few years how to turn the process to their advantage,'' Mr. Schick says.
Although some of the programs attached to the reconciliation bill may be justified, too many of them constitute ``pork barrel'' spending, Mr. Moore says.
Heritage budget analysts say that pork barrel spending hidden in this and other appropriations bills have cost Americans $20 billion in each of the past two years.
As examples Heritage cites construction of three Chicago parking garages ($3 million), repairs to privately owned dam in South Carolina ($13 million), and payments in 1988 to the town of Frederick, Md., to reimburse ransom paid to the invading Confederate Army during the Civil War ($200,000).