A plan to reform, not scuttle, US budgetmaking

As the Congress haggles over the latest budget, a number of critics claim the budgetary process is unworkable. Some have called for abandoning the process, which has failed repeatedly to complete budget resolutions on time. With deficit predictions now hovering around the $200 billion-a-year mark, concern is growing.

But don't give up the ship, advises a just-released report aimed at streamlining and depoliticizing the process. ''Strengthening the Federal Budget Process: A Requirement for Effective Fiscal Control,'' by the Committee for Economic Development, a group of prominent leaders in business, education, and government, stands by the current process, but with a number of revisions.

The report advocates:

* A unified budget. ''In recent years the integrity of the unified budget has been challenged, and with increasing frequency 'off budget' activities have been used to circumvent budgetary discipline.'' For example, the committee opposes the scheduled 1993 removal of social security from the overall budget. It believes the separation would make it ''impossible to balance social security needs against other claims for federal revenue.''

* Experimenting with two-year appropriations to see if a two-year budget cycle would be feasible for all programs.

* Establishing a broad-based budget-concepts commission to study the premises that underpin the federal budget. Also, setting up a bicameral congressional study group to deal ''more explicitly with congressional budget procedures.''

* Improving the accuracy of economic assumptions. Prompted by ''the fact that both the administration and Congress have seriously underestimated the actual size of the budget deficits in the past few years,'' the committee recommends that the Budget Committees of both houses agree on a common set of economic assumptions as a basis for the first budget resolution.

* Bringing federal credit and loan activities, along with tax expenditures and exemptions, under stricter control.

Many of the recommendations build upon the 1974 Budget Act, which set in motion a series of wide-ranging reforms intended to bring greater fiscal order to the budget process. But the reforms ''did not result in the degree of improvement in fiscal discipline that many of the framers of the 1974 act had hoped for,'' states the CED report.

The advisory panel of the nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy organization included four former Cabinet secretaries and three former directors and a former assistant director of the Office of Management and Budget. The project was headed by Frank W. Schiff, the CED's chief economist.

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