ANYBODY listening to the current debate on the federal budget deficit would have to conclude that Congress can only act on one side of the budget - the revenue side. Virtually all discussions focus on how to convince President Bush to back off from his pledge against new taxes and on which taxes should be increased. There is also an expenditure side to the budget. Congress - if it is able to summon the political will - can actually cut it by reducing or eliminating obsolete, wasteful, marginal, or at least readily postponable items.
I am proposing something so basic that many citizens will assume that Congress routinely does it - look for soft spots in the proposed budget of each federal department and agency. Just consider, in contrast, how the process now works.
The tax-writing committees hold many hearings on tax reform proposals (including ideas to raise more revenues). In comparison, how much time is allotted to the proponents of lower spending? Typically, none!
This is no misprint. The many months of congressional hearings virtually all focus on the justifications submitted by the spending agencies. The budget, authorization, and appropriations committees practically never hear from the advocates of specific proposals to reduce federal spending.
Of course, the three sets of congressional committees make some cuts, but on balance they mainly rearrange the president's initial budget estimates.
Clearly, the process needs to be changed. Here are a few possibilities for starters:
Cancel the production of aircraft and missiles (and the construction of bases) which were justified to fight a communist invasion of Western Europe. That potential military threat has simply evaporated.
Quit paying generous retirement benefits to able-bodied 38-, 39-, and 40-year-old veterans. Let them wait until they are 55 or 60 years old.
End subsidies to agribusiness. (That is what large, wealthy farmers really are.)
Eliminate low-cost federal credit for the lucky business firms that qualify for these special subsidies.
Each of those cuts would save billions of dollars a year. In the new paperback edition of ``Rendezvous With Reality,'' I surface numerous other cuts - large and small. Congressional action on just the top 12 would reduce the budget deficit by approximately $100 billion a year (on a reasonably phased basis, of course).
At present, we have to admit that there is little public support for budget cuts. That is not surprising. All the average citizen reads or hears about are the pleas of the spending agencies and their beneficiaries. What agency or interest group is going to pay for an ad to proclaim that its pet program is wasteful or even funded too generously?
The task of reviewing - and cutting - budgets is a basic management responsibility. In this regard, we taxpayers are being shortchanged by our elected officials who are paid, but have forgotten how, to ``just say no.''
If this suggestion sounds too general, here are a few examples of the high-priority items that the Congress has added to the budget in recent years:
Forced each US base in Europe to stockpile a year's worth of coal.
Created a national center for the study of weeds.
Helped 20 beekeepers by removing the $250,000 limit on honey subsidies.
Subsidized the commercialization of New Mexico wildflowers.
Reimbursed the town of Frederick, Md., for the ransom paid to the Confederate Army during the Civil War!
How can Congress expect the Executive Branch to show care in spending taxpayers' money when our representatives treat the Treasury as their private pork barrel? Nor do voters help by supporting only budget cuts that hit other localities and interest groups. The belts that need tightening include our own.