House, Senate budget panels: new guardians of the federal purse

Congress has reached a key juncture in its budgetary process, one that breaks new ground and may portend significant changes in legislative operations and in relations between Capitol Hill and the White House.

In a largely untried process called "reconciliation," House and Senate panels have agreed to federal spending goals set by congressional budget committees.

Some Democrats vow to amend the budget to restore favorite social programs. At the behest of the White House, Republicans in the House are preparing a substitute budget to confront their opponents if such a tactic is tried.

But in initially cutting nearly $36 billion from the fiscal 1982 budget, Congress not only has handed the Reagan administration an important victory, but it has substantially changed the way it does business.

Reconciling program spending to overall budget goals is a relatively new tool , one of the results of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. It has been used only once before -- last year when lawmakers agreed to cut the projected federal deficit by about $8 billion. Even that relatively small reduction took months of wrangling and massive joint get- togethers between House and Senate.

This year, a cut more than four times that amount is not only the result of "Reaganomics" and a more fiscally conservative Congress. It reflects a new division of power on Capitol Hill.

Previously, congressional taxation and appropriations committees handled revenue and spending legislation. The 1974 bill set up budget committees in House and Senate as a third source of fiscal policy power.

"The job of the budget committees is to guard Congress against itself," says congressional expert Allen Schick, senior specialist with the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service.

Writing in "The New Congress," a collection of essays recently published by the American Enterprise Institute, he continues: "They could succeed only by waging endless conflict on Capitol Hill. . . . The budget committees have to trespass on the interests of other committees in order to have an impact on legislative outcome. The Budget Act thus does more than merely recognize the inevitability of conflict; it seeds new opportunities for conflict into the legislative process."

This conflict is most evident in the reconciliation process now under way. It forces Congress to decide between programs that will get money and those that will receive less. It shifts power to the House and Senate budget committees and focuses attention on the fiscal impact of policy decisions. In past years, Congress had appropriated funds for various programs with little consideration for broader economic questions.

Intended as a reassertion of congressional power during the Nixon years, reconciliation now has been grasped by the White House and more conservative lawmakers to effect fundamental policy changes.

Perhaps just as significant -- although so far less well known -- is the way special-interest groups can influence public policy through the reconciliation process. By pushing for budget cuts that "zero out" specific items, such groups can in fact increase the chances for repeal of such things as government regulations.

Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico calls the initial reconciliation cuts "the most dramatic reduction in ongoing programs in the country's history." The budget committees, says Mr. Schick, have become "the guardians of the purse in the congressional budget process."

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