Behind-schedule US budget resembles brier patch

Congress wishes its budget problem would go away. Deferrals have bashed into expenditures. Appropriations bills are whizzing around like stacked-up jets. Deficit estimates keep getting worse, prompting cries for ''revenue enhancement,'' which is, apparently, a tax increase in formal clothing.

The budget process is eight weeks behind schedule. It's enough to make a senator hide in the cloakroom until Easter.

''It really is such a mess right now,'' says Rudolph Penner, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute. ''I have a hard time knowing where to begin to untangle it.''

And now a few more twists and turns have been added by publication of ''The Education of David Stockman,'' an Atlantic Monthly article in which the Office of Management and Budget director outlines his doubts about the Reagan economic program.

''(Stockman's) credibility and the credibility of the program he supports is in serious doubt,'' House Speaker Thomas O'Neill said Nov. 11.

How the process stands:

* The 13 appropriations bills were supposed to pass by Sept. 14. None have yet been enacted. Only four are ready for final action. Those four - Agriculture , Housing and Urban Developm,ent, Interior, and Legislative - are in total $3.9 billion more than the Reagan administration's September budget request. President Reagan has repeatedly threatened to veto budget-busting bills, which may account for some of the delay.

''No one wants to go first,'' says a congressional expert on the budget process.

On Nov. 20, the continuing resolution - a stopgap bill that allows the government to keep functioning without a finished budget - expires.

Congress will almost certainly have to pass a second continuing resolution. Usually a routine action, this may spark a political chess match: Congressional staffers have been told Reagan may veto this bill, too. Such a move could bring much of government to a screeching halt, and would force Capitol Hill into a showdown with the President over his proposed budget cuts.

* Even without an official budget, the White House is tightening its purse strings. Many agency heads have been told to behave as if Reagan's September request for $13 billion in additional cuts has already passed.

''We're not even spending at the (first continuing) resolution level,'' says one midlevel bureaucrat.

The executive branch is required to tell Congress whenever it embarks on such a spending slowdown, sending up ''deferral'' notices. Government budget experts say the White House has yet to send up adequate deferrals to Capitol Hill. Technically, the executive is breaking the law, and could be sued by the General Accounting Office - but even ardent Democratic partisans on the Hill say it's only a bureacratic problem, one they don't plan to exploit.

* The on-again, off-again tax increases now appear off. After months of hearing nothing but the glories of tax cuts, it sounded strange to hear Republican senators talking about ''revenue enhancement'' as a way to balance the budget. But any tax increase would almost certainly be defeated by the House. And Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan has told reporters that the administration is backing off from its request for $3 billion in miscellaneous tax hikes for fiscal year 1982.

The steps Congress takes to fund the government were established by the Budget Act of 1974. They have been behind schedule before. But this year's traffic jam is causing some observers to wonder whether the process itself will ever be the same.

''The more you do not pay attention to the time schedule, the weaker the process becomes,'' says Rudolph Penner.

The President's Sept. 24 request for 12 percent across-the-board additional cuts threw a monkey wrench into the budget machinery. Congress seemed to seize on the AWACS vote as a welcome diversion, letting budget problems fade into the background for several weeks.

''The way Congress is managed, as a major institution - they don't give much thought to how they could get more done in less time,'' says Penner.

With no idea of what their final budget will be, many agencies simply hit the ''hold'' button until the fight is over. Already demoralized by the dreaded RIF (reduction in force), bureaucrats can do nothing but clear up existing business.

''All our travel and new projects are on hold,'' says one.

On the other hand, some say the budget process problems must be viewed in light of this year's extraordinary political events.

''This is the first time since 1974 it's (the process) been called upon to do the things its doing,'' says a Republican committee staffer. ''It's still a fairly young process, finding its place in the overall scheme of government.''

The budget battle will not end until Congress passes the second concurrent budget resolution (not to be confused with the second continuing resolution). The concurrent resolution is a type of dramatic ending - a vote on budget totals already determined by the appropriations bills. It was supposed to pass by Sept. 15. Now staffers say they'll be happy if it's all over by Christmas.

''Sometime this week we should get an agreement with the White House'' on budget cut levels says one committee staffer, hopefully. ''That would go a long way toward breaking up the jam.''

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