Enforcing budget discipline

SO the Supreme Court has ruled that the comptroller general cannot be designated the little Dutch boy of United States fiscal policy. It would have been nifty, those who voted for the Gramm-Rudman budget law thought, to have the comptroller general in effect stick his finger in the federal spending dike to stop the torrent of deficit leakage.

The comptroller general, a congressionally appointed officer in the General Accounting Office, was to have forecast the economic weather as of mid-August and to have reconciled congressional and administration budget estimates, and if the spread between income and outgo appeared likely to be too wide, automatic spending controls would have been clamped on federal spending for the fiscal year beginning this October. This would have put a congressional appointee in the position of telling the President's agencies what to do with funds. Hence the court determined that the congressional branch, in keeping with the principle of separation of powers, will again have to vote on its spending bill directly, with the executive branch retaining its option of veto.

The best feature of Gramm-Rudman was that it provided, if not a vehicle for agreement, then at least a way to manage disagreement over spending levels and priorities: Everyone would share in the cuts evenly. Objections came from many agencies, including the Defense Department, that the next round of cuts would have to be made across the board -- which is not always the most efficient way to apportion limited resources.

Passage of Gramm-Rudman, even with reservations over the constitutionality of the automatic trigger (which proved well founded), signaled that Washington could rouse itself to a plan of action that would substantially reduce the annual federal deficit over five years. Its supporters hope to try again, proposing changes in the law that would protect the comptroller general from ready dismissal by Congress and giving the President some rights of dismissal for good cause.

All is not lost. What is needed now is what was needed at the outset: a grand budget compromise. Even under Gramm-Rudman, fiscal integrity was not assured: Congress and the administration were preparing spending projections that would have deferred accounting for outlays to the next fiscal year.

The White House may find it politically easy to say that now ``Congress must make the difficult choices.'' This emphasis on separation of powers is ironic when one considers this President's longtime request for a line-item veto over the congressional budget. And the White House may be in a better position to defend defense spending. But Washington is back to confronting the basic legislative impasse of the Reagan-O'Neill era: The deficit describes the gap between the President's tax cut and defense priorities on the one hand, and Congress's commitment to the existing structure of social, farm, and other federal programs.

With the economy slowing, some of the short-term pressure may be off the deficit. Though elections loom, the public does not seem all that exercised by the deficit issue.

All along it has been the Senate Republicans who have taken the lead on formulating a budget-deficit compromise. This will likely continue to be the case.

If the President, however, decided he wanted to chair a meaningful deficit reduction summit, his friends in Congress would gladly defer. Such a step would be greeted in the economic community as favorably as a superpower summit on nuclear matters would be greeted in the arms control community.

If the stock market slide continues -- and the economy stumbles -- the President may want to reconsider seizing the economic-policy initiative. As it is, Congress and the White House must accept accountability for the decisions flooding the spending side of the dike, rather than leave it to some designated little Dutch boy to stem the leakage.

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