Better budgetmaking

I have been both an observer and direct participant in the federal budgetmaking process for over 35 years. As members of Congress sit down to their budgetary tasks this year they will be faced with some basic choices. Congress now has the chance either to strengthen the discipline that the current congressional budget process, begun in 1974, brings to national spending and revenue decisions, or to succumb to the temptation to let the budget process slide into disuse, abuse, and eventual demise.

Recently, I chaired a study for the Committee for Economic Development which emphasized that the way Congress makes budget decisions is vital to the way this nation is governed. The group that prepared this study included industry leaders , three former budget directors, and four former cabinet secretaries, with the help and advice of experienced budget experts. Our basic conclusion is that an effective federal budget process is essential to the basic functioning of the political process and our best hope for enforcing budgetary discilpline in both the executive and legislative branches.

As a first step, Congress should take action to establish a broad-based Budget Concepts Commission to study the basic ideas that underpin the federal budget, and a companion Bicameral Study Group to deal with specific congressional procedures.

A central theme of our finding is that an effective budget process needs to be based on full and clear information. This, in turn, calls for a comprehensive , unified budget on which congressional debates - and votes - can focus. Some specific reforms recommended are:

* Bring federal credit activities and tax expenditures (subsidies) under stricter budget control. The credit budget should be permanently made subject to most of the budget control procedures now applicable to direct spending. Tax subsidies, when authorized for the same purpose as direct outlays, should be considered jointly.

* Maintain and broaden the unified budget. Social security should be kept in the unified budget instead of being removed, as it is scheduled to be in 1993.

* Resist proposed actions that would abolish the House and Senate Budget Committees or undermine their essential functions.

* Make the first budget resolution binding, instead of waiting until the end of the fiscal year. Congress would obviously retain the option to pass subsequent resolutions if this appeared necessary for national-security reasons or major changes in the economy.

* Experiment with two-year appropriations to see if a two-year budget cycle would be feasible for all programs, thus reducing workloads in both branches and avoiding ''stop and start'' financing.

Is there hope for reform and for broadening interest in the arcane art of budgetmaking? For example, Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson's House Rules Committee Task Force on the budget is undertaking an intensive review of the budget process.

Another encouraging example is the aptly named Honesty Budgeting Act of 1983, which proposes to bring off-budget lending activities - specifically lending programs financed by the Federal Financing Bank - into the unified budget.

There is hope for budget process reform, and there is also an urgent need. It is only through an improved basic budget process that the nation can hope to bring order to its fiscal affairs and remove the current concerns about huge deficits for the foreseeable future.

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