Nudging the budget

Although we are not yet able to comment on the substance of the new fiscal year 1982 budget being hammered together by the Reagan team, there is one aspect worth mentioning. That is the orderliness and dispatch with which the President-elect's economic advisers are tackling the whole somewhat knotty budgeting process.

For the uninitiated outside observer, the congressional budgeting process -- spelled out in the Budget Act of 1974 -- resembles a no-nonsense railroad timetable. That is, deadlines are set throughout the year by which lawmakers and the administration must act on various stages of the proposed budget. But to meet deadlines, the administration in power must have a clear sense of its overall priorities. There must be close, if not always amicable, White House-congressional cooperation. And there must be a commitment on the part of lawmakers that deadlines will be honored.

Sad to say, many of the expectations that led to setting up of the timetable for the budgeting process have been dashed in recent years by failures on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. Congress, through its extensive committee system, has become increasingly sloppy in meeting deadlines and has turned more and more to running the federal government on "continuing resolutions" instead of funding bills. The Carter White House, for its part, occasionally violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the budgeting system. Last summer, for example, the White House was late in submitting its midsession budget review. Republicans insist that was hardly accidental, since the submission would have come during the week of the GOP convention and would have acknowledged that earlier projections of a balanced budget were doomed.

Congressional sources are also critical of the administration's frequent vacillation regarding its own budgets. "There is horror story after horror story about the confusion and hesitancy of the administration regarding its budgets," one House official notes. "In areas like defense and urban policy, lawmakers would go out on a limb supporting various administration proposals, only to see the administration do a flip-flop and leave the lawmakers dangling."

The Reagan team's plan to seek fast congressional action on the fiscal 1982 budget, as well as on suggested changes in the 1981 budget, may well help restore a sense of efficiency to the budgeting process. Whether that proves to be the case, or whether the Republicans (who like to talk of their predilection for "sound management") will fare no better than their Democratic predecessors, will be one of the significant things to watch in the months ahead.

Congress, too, is already exploring ways of strengthening the budget process. Several task forces, for example, are considering the concept of multiyear budgets. For the short term, however, Congress and the new administration must work together as closely as possible to ensure that the nation's economic business is conducted in a sou nd, orderly -- and timely -- way.

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