Gramm-Rudman law keeps some clout, whatever high court rules
Washington — An anticipated Supreme Court decision nullifying a key provision of the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget law will put intense pressure on Congress to come up with budget cuts on its own. At the same time, political experts here say, it may well strengthen President Reagan's resistance to defense-budget cuts or a tax increase.
And, says congressional scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, ``it will intensify the impact of Gramm-Rudman this year and destroy it in future years.''
Lawmakers have braced for an expected high-court decision, perhaps as early as today, striking down the automatic budget-cutting mechanism of the deficit-reduction act. Word of the decision surfaced Sunday as the result of a reported leak to a broadcast news service.
Under the provision, if Congress and the Reagan administration fail to settle on a deficit-slashing budget, the United States comptroller general is empowered to order across-the-board budget cuts. For fiscal 1987 (starting Oct. 1, 1986), the deficit target is $144 billion.
In succeeding years, the law provides progressive reduction of the deficit until 1991, by which time the budget is to have been balanced.
The automatic provision has hung like a sword of Damocles over the heads of congressional budgeteers as they struggled to find a deficit-reducing formula politically palatable to Republicans, Democrats, and the White House. But it has also provided them a curious alibi in the event the process breaks down as in past years. If the automatic cuts were to swing in place, some observers say, legislators would be able to blame an inanimate law, rather than themselves, for indiscriminate budget cuts.
Should the American Broacasting Company television news report of a 7-to-2 Supreme Court decision knocking out the automatic cut prove correct (and few doubt its accuracy), pressure on lawmakers to come up with a budget could be even more intensive than if the automatic provision were left in place.
But loss of the automatic provision does not end Gramm-Rudman's effectiveness. A fallback provision written into the law allows Congress to pass and President Reagan to sign a resolution putting the automatic cuts in place.
Many in Washington think that, in this election year, a vote for such a measure would be exceedingly difficult to cast.
Yet lawmakers who once voted for the law written by Republican Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire would be in an awkward position if they voted against the resolution to put that law into effect.
``If they don't [vote for the resolution], a lot of guys will be in a very tight spot in November,'' says Rep. Marvin Leath (D) of Texas, a member of the House-Senate conference committee trying to reconcile budget resolutions passed by the House and Senate earlier this year.
Some lawmakers fear the President could use his time-proven skill of avoiding political liability to put the blame for a budget failure on Congress's shoulders. That concern could increase the pressure on lawmakers to compromise on the budget.
But once the election year is over, deficit reduction could seem less politically sacrosanct than at present. Without the threat of the automatic provision, some observers say, deficit cutting may lose its urgency.
The Supreme Court is expected to declare unconstituional the part of the act that charges the comptroller general with determining budget ceilings if Congress fails to meet deficit targets.
The arrangement violates the constitutionally mandated separation of powers, the court is expected to decide, since the comptroller is functioning in an executive capacity, yet can be fired by Congress.
But Senator Gramm and Senate majority leder Robert Dole (R) of Kansas say Congress could amend the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which gives Congress the ability to remove the comptroller, and thus eliminate the separation-of-powers problem.
The court's decison would uphold the unanimous finding Feb. 7 of a special three-judge federal panel. The earlier judgment came in response to lawsuits filed by US Rep. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma, 11 other members of the House, and the National Treasury Employees Union.