Congress Weighs Reforms in Budget Process

Some lawmakers see agreement in principle, if not detail, for a two-year budget process

AS Congress tries to sort through the wreckage of this year's budget effort, some members are beginning to take a long view of the process. Not surprisingly they are concluding that Congress must reform the way it comes up with budgets. The most-mentioned change is the need to plan further ahead by budgeting for two years instead of the current one year. ``A biennial budget is an idea whose time has come,'' says Sen. William Roth Jr. (R) of Delaware, the ranking Republican on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. At the same time members of Congress emphasize what political observers have been saying for years: that Congress needs not only a method to achieve better budgets, but the will to do it. ``If we're ever going to get to a balanced budget the process is just part of it,'' says Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) of Iowa. ``The political will is the most of it.''

Ironically, that's what political observers here say Congress has lacked during this year's budget process - sufficient political will to reduce the deficit.

Senator Grassley, a member of the Senate Budget Committee, says that if Congress changes the budget process without strengthening congressional resolve to reduce the deficit, it will merely amount to ``cooking numbers.''

``Cooking numbers is the second oldest profession in the world,'' he dryly reminds colleagues in a joint hearing of the Senate Governmental and Budget Committees.

Other ideas for reform include:

Giving the president the line-item veto - the power to veto individual items within appropriations bills while still signing the overall measure.

Not reducing the budget deficit by the amount of surplus building up in the Social Security trust fund.

Restructuring the congressional committee system to make it more efficient.

At the moment, however, the proposal generating the most attention is the two-year budget cycle, which President Bush has supported. The current one-year cycle takes ``so much time'' with repetitive effort, Senator Roth says, that Congress cannot do many of the things it should, such as conduct probing oversight of federal programs. ``By a two-year budget we'll cut almost in half the work that needs to be done,'' Roth says.

Proponents say that if Congress plans further ahead by adopting a two-year budget, recipients of federal aid will be able to plan ahead, thus increasing their efficiency. ``It would mean better utilization of the money,'' Roth adds. ``And certainly in this time of money shortage, I think that is a worthwhile goal.''

The problem is more complicated, says Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska. He calls the proposal ``a good plan. But in my judgment it won't work without a restructuring of the committees at the same time.''

A restructuring is ``absolutely fundamental'' to improving congressional efficiency, says Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas. She proposes making the budget committee in each house of Congress ``a priority committee,'' by restructuring the often-overlapping jurisdiction of committees and by combining the authorization and appropriation committees and their work, which now are two generally repetitive steps.

Roth notes that agreement appears to exist for a two-year budget process and suggests that Congress move ahead with this change. ``If we wait until we complete all the reforms some of us thinking are necessary, nothing will ever be done,'' he says.

But the agreement is primarily on the principle of a two-year budget cycle, notes Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio. He points out that disagreement exists on important practical details of a two-year program. Until those are ironed out, he indicates, it is not feasible for Congress to move forward.

Senator Glenn notes that three different proposals exist for a two-year budget cycle: spend two years on each budget; spend only one year working on the budget and the second year on other issues; or agree on the overall size of the budget once every two years but actually appropriate the money every year.

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