Search Is On for Improved Budget Process

Many on Capitol Hill feel that decisions on spending are so protracted and confusing that the system urgently needs streamlining

ACROSS America, headlines trumpeted President Clinton's victory late last week after the Senate passed his fiscal plan.

Yet Mr. Clinton's budget battle has only begun. Months of debate, horse-trading, filibusters, and backroom deals remain. This summer, if all goes extremely well, the president may finally get his $1.5 trillion budget for 1994.

The long, complex, confusing, and arcane budget process in Washington not only frustrates presidents, it leaves many lawmakers scratching their heads.

John Kasich of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, says very few members really understand how the nation's budget is put together on Capitol Hill.

Representative Kasich says: "If you said to the members of Congress, explain how this budget process works, do you think we'd have 10 percent of them who could run through this gamut? I don't think so."

Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana says the complaint he hears again and again from members is that "it's too complicated, too complex."

Representative Hamilton is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, which is looking for ways to improve how Capitol Hill works.

The joint committee already has put together a preliminary list of budget changes worth studying. Those ideas include: a two-year budget, rather than the current one-year budget; the line-item veto to give the president more power to cut wasteful programs; replacing the House and Senate budget committees with a joint committee; and zero-based budgeting (a favorite idea of President Carter), which requires every program to start over from scratch each year.

Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas says the "confusing, redundant spending process" fails to pin blame for runaway spending, and leaves the public perplexed. Senator Kassebaum, a member of the joint committee, is a leader in the effort to reform the budget process.

Rep. William Natcher (D) of Kentucky, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, suggests the problem goes beyond mere process, however. He says at least two other factors handicap Congress's efforts to check deficit spending.

First, Congress and previous presidents have created so many automatic entitlement programs, like Social Security and federal pensions, that lawmakers are losing control. Discretionary spending, where Congress can cut outlays, now constitutes only 35 percent of the budget.

As Robert Reischauer, director of the Congressional Budget Office, told Congress at a recent hearing: "The public is holding you accountable for events over which you have no control."

Second, lawmakers have launched programs that go on and on - spending forever, without further action by Congress. Representative Natcher wants a "sunset" provision in every program to end it within five years, unless it is reauthorized. "Now is the time to do it," he says.

Officials from the executive branch have another complaint. Because the budget process is so long, so involved, and so decentralized, they must spend months visiting Capitol Hill, testifying before scores of committees. The Pentagon, for one, devotes thousands of hours of staff time to congressional testimony, much of which is redundant.

As this year's deficit rises toward $300 billion, pressure increases to reform the budget process. By this summer the joint committee will put forward its recommendation after sorting through dozens of ideas.

Some of the most popular ideas call for streamlining the current creaky system.

Look, for example, at the big fight over the budget resolution that was just passed by the Senate. It began when President Clinton last month proposed a budget outline. Then the House and Senate budget committees debated that budget, and made changes, which the president endorsed. Then it went to the full House for a vote. It passed. Then to the Senate. It passed.

So what does it mean? Nothing, legally. It is not a law. It is merely a blueprint, which both bodies will use to develop the real budget. The final budget still must go through appropriations committees, authorization committees, taxing committees, after which it must be approved by both houses, then reconciled (to remove differences), then approved again by both houses, and signed by the president.

Sometimes, it seems endless.

And also wasteful.

Members complain they must vote repeatedly on the same issue. Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma recalls voting "30 or 40 times" in one year on the B-1 bomber.

Looking at all this, Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a freshman Republican from Washington state, says: "I can tell you that the taxpayers of America by and large are thoroughly confused.... They read press releases saying Congress has endorsed [authorized] a program, then a month later they read that Congress has voted to kill funding for the same program. It is confusing even to those of us who now must live with it."

It's too early to say which reforms the joint committee might endorse. Many experts urge the committee to be bold - to take a dramatic step, such as combining the appropriations and authorizations committees. That would eliminate one of the three major steps in the budget process, but would also ruffle the feathers of some senior congressmen.

Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin cautions that changes in the process are no cure-all, however. "Let's not kid ourselves," he says. Even a better system won't cut budget deficits "if we do not have the will" in Congress.

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