The debate over what to do with the federal budget surplus overshadows another issue: The federal budget process no longer corresponds to fiscal reality.
A little history: Before 1974, members of Congress didn't have to vote on total spending and revenues. So they could rail piously about the deficit while voting to maintain or even increase it. The Congressional Budget Act passed that year was meant to force members to go on record about the deficit level, in the hope this would pressure them to curb the federal red ink.
But the process was set up to deal with deficits, not surpluses. Another law, the Budget Enforcement Act, doesn't allow Congress to use surpluses for a tax cut or spending increases.
The annual budget process is also inefficient. A 1996 congressional study found that the Senate spends 73 percent of its time on budget matters, leaving little other time for other bills, treaties and nominations, and oversight of federal agencies.
Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, the Senate Budget Committee chairman and a longtime general in the fight to wrestle the deficit under control, proposes several changes that would lead to greater flexibility and efficiency in government. Among his ideas:
*Require the president to submit a two-year budget at the beginning of the first session of a Congress and lawmakers to adopt two-year budget and funding bills in that session. Congress would then use the second session for policy bills and oversight.
*Require 60 votes to pass any "emergency" spending bill in the Senate. Abuse of such emergency bills is a growing problem. "Emergencies" would have to meet five criteria: necessary, sudden, urgent, unforeseen, and not permanent.
*Amend Senate rules to allow surpluses in non-Social Security funds to be used for spending increases or tax reductions.
*Provide for automatic continued funding of the government in the event the president and Congress couldn't agree on a budget, effectively preventing a recurrence of the 1995-96 government shutdowns.
The Domenici proposals would not only streamline the process and leave Congress more time for other matters: They also remove the budget from election years, when politicking and demagoguery can replace reasoned decisionmaking. The plan deserves serious consideration on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.