LAYING the blame for deficit spending at congressional Democrats' doorstep, Republican policymakers have overlooked their own opportunity to shrink the deficit. Used effectively, the presidential veto can become an important tool in efforts to put the nation's fiscal house back in order.
The case against the federal budget process has been well established over the last several years. Statutory deadlines and timetables repeatedly are missed, while the seriousness of the deficit is masked by accounting gimmicks and "off-budget" spending.
In the face of continuing deficits, the current budget process was adopted in 1974. Yet since 1974, the deficit has grown from 2.5 percent of gross national product to well over 6 percent during the 1980s. Today, expenditures exceed revenue by a record level of more than $400 billion.
The simple truth is the process has become too complicated. Spending now involves a fourfold track in Congress - including House and Senate budget committees, authorizing committees and appropriation committees. Imposed on top of the committee structure is the growing dependence on budget summits.
The complexity of this system, coupled with an insatiable appetite for spending, has contributed to Congress's inability to achieve budget discipline. More than half of the rules adopted in the House during the 101st Congress included waivers of the budget act - waivers for timing, procedure, or spending levels.
Only once since fiscal year 1977 have all 13 appropriation bills been enacted individually before the beginning of the new fiscal year. Instead, the "wrap-it-all-into-one-catchall-spending-bill" approach, known as a continuing resolution, has become the standard.
This all-or-nothing approach to federal spending, usually taken after the new fiscal year has begun, is unfair to the administration, unfair to those members of Congress interested in fiscal responsibility, and most important, it is unfair to the American taxpayers.
Without a majority in either chamber, Republicans often point out that congressional Democrats currently control the nation's checkbook. But it is a Republican president who wields the veto pen, along with a sufficient number of Republican votes to sustain.
In the face of a recurring breakdown in congressional discipline, the veto takes on added importance. It is the constitutional bridle given to presidents for reining in an unruly, free-spending Congress.
But no president in recent history, Republican or Democrat, has demonstrated a willingness to veto appropriation bills, or continuing resolutions, when they are over-budget.
President Ronald Reagan dropped a copy of a voluminous continuing resolution on the podium during one of his last State of the Union addresses and vowed never to sign another one. Although it was too little, too late, Mr. Reagan was correct in acknowledging that the the veto was, and is, the tool of last resort.
Seven years ago, Congress passed the original Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law calling for a balanced budget by 1991. Three revisions and a number of summits later, the deficit has doubled. The time has arrived for using an enforceable tool when dealing with overall spending caps.
Each year, presidents - Republican and Democrat alike - send their budgets to Congress, only to have them greeted by pronouncements of being "dead on arrival." And, given each administration's lack of willingness to assure the viability of their spending priorities, these budgets are in fact DOA.
Instead, presidents should use their annual budgets to accomplish dual purposes: The document should be broadened to include both the administration's spending priorities and its plan for deficit reduction. Specifically, the president should set overall spending limits for the 13 appropriation bills within the budget.
With a presidential threat to automatically veto any appropriation bill that exceeds the limits, a smaller number of congressional votes is required for maintaining fiscal responsibility. Overriding a veto requires a two-thirds vote in both houses. Thus, only 34 percent of the members in either house can enforce a veto by voting to sustain. Republicans have enough votes in each house to uphold a veto by President Bush.
By using an effective veto strategy, a president can establish enforceable limits on spending while allowing for debate about the priorities within those limits. It may be the only way serious inroads will be made toward reducing the budget deficit.