Chaos Aplenty, But No Budget
A fragmented House votes down every one of seven plans
By George J. Church
"Right now, you haven't got the votes out there to pass the Lord's Prayer." So said Wisconsin Democrat Les Aspin last week, ruefully contemplating the spectacle of a sadly divided House of Representatives trying to come up with some kind of budget compromise. In a week of legislative chaos, the House debated sevven different budget plans for fiscal 1983 and voted every last one of them down; none came within even 24 votes of passage.
Dismayed by huge deficits of $ 100 billion or more projected by nearly all the competing resolutions, but unable to agree on any combination of spending cuts and tax increases that would hold the red ink even to those figures, the legislators fragmented into splinter groups. Conservatives would accept no big cut in military expenditures. Liberals would buy no severe slash in social outlays. Leaders of the controlling Democrats and the minority Republicans lost command of their troops, who rejected frantic pleas that they pass something -- anything.
At week's end Chairman James Jones began meeting with other members of the House Budget Committee to see if the group could draft yet another set of spending, revenue and deficit estimates that might possibly pass. If so, they will eventually have to be reconciled with a budget resolution passed by the Republican-controlled Senate two weeks ago. At very best, the nation will be kept waiting for weeks to see if anything can get by both chambers. The prolonged uncertainty will probably further delay any major drop in interest rates; that in turn could hold back any recovery from the present severe recession. If no budget passes, Congress will have to fund the Government either by a series of "continuing resolutions" or by passing spending and tax bills piecemeal, with no overall plan.Either way, deficits could spiral out of control.
At a Republican fund-raising dinner in Los Angeles, the President got a partisan laugh by joking, "Believe me, Bedtime for Bonzo made more sense than what they were doing in Washington." The reference, of course, was to a 1951 movie in which Ronald Reagan played a professor who tried to educate a chimp. The wise-crack was part of an attack on congressional Democrats, and as such was a bit unfair since Reagan is partly to blame for the present budget confusion. Back in February, he offered Congress a budget containing increases in military spending so large, cuts in social outlays so drastic, and deficit projections so high that hardly any legislators in either party would accept them. After compromise negotiations broke down in April, the President essentially left it up to Congress to draft an alternative budget. While on vacation at his Santa Barbara haven last week, however, the President telephoned two dozen Congressmen to urge passage of a budget resolution proposed by House Republican leaders.
The House then voted under an unusual floor rule drafted by Rules Committee Chairman Richard Bolling of Missouri. First the chamber was to decide on four minor budget proposals, ranging from highly liberal to rigidly conservative. Then it was to consider 68 separate amendments to one, two or all of the remaining three plans. Finally it was to decide the fate of the Big Three: one plan offered by Republican leaders, another by a bipartisan coalition of liberals and moderates, and a third by Democratic leaders. Even if any budget got a majority, that would not end the matter; the House would go doggedly on to cast ballots on all the others, and only the last one to pass would count.
The purpose of this bizarre procedure, as one top Democrat candidly explained, was to let legislators "cover their asses" with various interest groups by voting for hopeless proposals before getting down to serious balloting. For three days the rule actually appeared to work. As expected, the House rejected the four minor budget plans by large margins, and on Wednesday the coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats that had passed Reagan's budget last year seemed to be reuniting behind the resolution offered by the G.O.P. leadership.
On Thursday, however, Ohio Democrat Mary Rose Oakar proposed an amendment to the Republican budget that would cancel a three-year, $ 23.3 billion reduction in planned Medicare spending * and take the money instead out of defense outlays. To the astonishment of leaders of both parties, the House passed the amendment, 227 to 196; some 64 Republicans, apparently worried about the effect of Medicare cuts on their re-election campaigns, voted for it. That destroyed the coalition behind the Republican plan; many conservatives would no longer support the proposal with the amendment, and it lost 235 to 192. But no other working coalition could be formed, either for the bipartisan budget or for two versions of the Democratic leaders' budget. All were defeated.
Medicare expenditures jumped from $16.3 billion in 1975 to $42.5 billion in 1981, and have been estimated as high as $80 billion for 1985.
If the House cannot pick itself up out of this shambles and speedily vote some sort of responsible budget plan in the next few weeks, the economic outlook will be dire. A group of six former Cabinet officers (including five Secretaries of the Treasury who had served in Democratic and Republican Administrations going back to 1961) warned early last week that "the huge budget deficits now in prospect . . . could lead to years of financial turbulence and industrial stagnation." The group, assembled by Peter G. Peterson, who was Secretary of Commerce in the Nixon Administration, proposed a one-year freeze on Social Security and other entitlement benefits, a $ 25 billion cut in defense outlays by fiscal 1985, new taxes on oil, gasoline and natural gas, and possibly even a delay or reduction of the 10% income tax cut scheduled for 1983.Warned the six: "With each week of delay, the problem is getting worse -- and harder to solve." Delay, however, is about all that Congress has produced so far.
Reported by Neil MacNeil/Washington
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