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Budget Goes From Emergency to Ennui

<i> Carol G. Cox is the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan nonprofit educational organization in Washington. </i>

Congress was supposed to adopt a budget last week. The Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, better known as Gramm-Rudman, set April 15 as the deadline for congressional action. Has Congress given up already on its new balanced-budget law? Where is the budget?

This is not the first time that Congress has missed a budget deadline. When it adopted Gramm-Rudman, many of us doubted that it could meet the measure’s ambitious timetable. But none of us anticipated the ennui that seems to have set in today. Four months ago the deficit was an “emergency.” Today many seem to think it a bore.

President Reagan has a budget. It was submitted to Congress on time in February, with much hoopla surrounding the first entry in the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction sweepstakes. The Congressional Budget Office says that the President’s deficit is $15 billion over the limit. Many in Congress say that his budget is unrealistic--that the domestic cuts are too deep, that defense spending is too high and that there must be a somewhat larger tax increase than proposed. But, the way the system works, it now is Congress’ turn to act, and it has yet to come up with an alternative.

The Senate Budget Committee reported a deficit-reduction package before the Easter recess that meets the Gramm-Rudman targets. The White House says that it cuts defense too deeply and raises taxes too much. (Reagan’s budget would raise taxes, but not as much as the Budget Committee proposed.)

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The committee acted early to give the Senate and House plenty of time to reach agreement and meet the congressional deadline. Majority Leader Bob Dole, however, is reluctant to ask the Senate to vote on a budget that the President opposes.

The House Budget Committee has not even met. The House Democratic leaders say that they will not consider a budget until after the Senate acts, and will not consider new taxes unless the President says that it is OK.

Reducing the deficit is important. Failure to cut the deficit eventually could undermine economic growth. A weak economy would put a severe strain on the government’s ability to meet its most important responsibilities, not to mention the cost in terms of lost jobs and incomes, business failures and plant closings.

Some people are saying that the deficit will go down if Congress and the President do nothing. Don’t believe it. Relatively modest changes in economic projections and policy assumptions can produce wide swings in the federal deficit. Year after year we project declining deficits, and more often than not the actual deficit exceeds our projections by billions of dollars.

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Deficit projection is not a perfect science, but two things are certain: The federal budget will not be balanced in our lifetimes--federal deficits will remain dangerously high--if Congress and the President do not reach agreement on a deficit-reduction package. And spending will go up, not down, if Congress does not adopt a budget.

Without a budget, Congress has no system of internal controls, no basis on which to tell whether appropriation bills are too high. The budget process may not be perfect, but it is the only tool that Congress has to enforce any fiscal discipline at all.

When Congress passed and the President signed Gramm-Rudman in December, they promised to balance the budget by 1991. We believe that they should make good on that promise, and the sooner the better.

In our political system the House, the Senate and the President must agree on one budget--or the country will have no budget at all. The President has a budget. The Senate Budget Committee has a budget. But where is the budget?

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