Cox Proposal Puts Revenue Horse Before Spending Cart : Budget: O.C. representative's bill would make Congress, President agree on totals before they fund programs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine the tough sales pitch facing Christopher Columbus when he could only rely on common sense in arguing that the world wasn't flat.

Or think about trying to persuade American motorists that they would have to begin driving on the left side of the road, instead of the right.

Now you may have some idea of the immense political and psychological hurdles facing Orange County Rep. Christopher Cox as he tries to persuade his colleagues in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, to mend their budgetary ways.

This is not a fight over how much to spend on Medicare or welfare or school lunches; it's about changing the ingrained habits of Congress, which first decides which pet projects it wants to fund, and then rings up a spending total that invariably exceeds the government's income.

Which is why the nation has had a chronic deficit--the "D" word that was driven into the national consciousness by H. Ross Perot in a nasal twang during his 1992 presidential campaign.

But long before Perot made deficit reduction a household term and the watchword of the current freshman class of Congress, Cox had begun crafting new budgeting rules that he believes will bring the deficit under control.

Instead of allowing Congress to revise the President's detailed budget--or come up with a completely different plan, as the Republican-led Congress did this year--Cox wants both sides to settle on the grand totals first, and then focus on the details later.

After years of building support for what he calls "common sense" budget reform, Cox believes this current Congress presents his best chance ever to win approval of proposals to be formally unveiled in the next few days.

"It's difficult to do, because it will probably be the most significant change in the entire federal budget system in the postwar era," said the Newport Beach Republican, exhibiting his lust for the less-than-sexy economic issues he is known to champion on Capitol Hill.

There's little debate in Washington that the current budget-writing system needs fixing. The federal government today is running on borrowed time--with a yet-to-be-raised debt ceiling that doesn't permit interim borrowing--because the Republican Congress and the Democratic President could not reach agreement on a new spending plan before the Oct. 1 deadline.

There's even talk now that they won't meet their extended deadline of Nov. 13, and could be haggling beyond Thanksgiving Day.

"Right now, the gridlock is nothing more than a negotiating tactic," Cox said. "Everyone knows that in one form or another a deal will be struck." His plan, he said, would "take away the incentive to play budget chicken," because of the political penalties built into the new proposal.

Like men taking on the herculean task of pushing a giant boulder up a mountain, Cox and his GOP allies need to make sure the rock doesn't roll back down on them.

The problem facing Cox and his co-captain on this effort, freshman Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), is how to devise a set of game rules that Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and moderates, powerful committee chairmen and maverick freshmen members can agree on.

Tax watchdog groups liken it to the term limits issue. Members of Congress said they favored term limits, and even publicly signed onto the notion that their years in Washington be capped. But as was seen earlier this year, several options went down in defeat on the House floor, after members haggled over the fine print.

To be successful, budget watchers say, any new budget rules must be fair--regardless of which political party controls Congress or the White House--yet not strip away the power of the purse strings that Republican leaders are just beginning to enjoy.

"The big question is going to be: Are the Republicans, who are in the position of power, going to be more open to reform than their Democratic predecessors were, particularly the chairmen of the committees?" asked Bryan Riley, a budget analyst for Citizens for a Sound Economy. "Are they going to be willing to see some of their powers moderated to get their spending under control?"

David Keating, one of the leaders of the National Taxpayers Union, is more to the point: "Never underestimate the powers of committee chairmen who are looking out for their turf." And protecting their ability to serve up pork, he might have added.

In defense of his plan, Cox argued the proposed reforms do not diminish the powers of key budget chairmen, but streamline the process to make their jobs a little easier. The only power being taken away, Cox maintained, is "the power to cheat. We're trying to take that away."

Cox's personal campaign to change how Congress makes spending decisions began in 1986, before he was elected to Congress and while he was working in relative obscurity as an attorney in the Reagan White House.

As one of three staffers assigned to review the arcane budget system, Cox became convinced that the 1974 Budget Act needed to be scrapped, because it allowed spending to be approved piecemeal, set no enforceable spending limits, and had allowed the national debt to soar.

His boss at the time, White House Counsel Peter Wallison, once relayed how Cox laboriously came up with solutions for how to deal with each of the dozens of entitlement programs such as Medicare that have their own set of funding rules. The Administration's embarrassment over the Iran-Contra controversy kept President Reagan from pushing for change when the study was completed, Wallison said, but it served as the foundation for Cox's budget reform legislation.

After reaching Congress, it seemed that every time Cox heard the word budget he hoisted the flag for budget reform. By 1993, Cox had more than 100 co-sponsors for his bill, and by last year, almost 200.

The soon-to-be-unveiled bill would remove the requirement that the President submit to Congress a detailed spending plan. Presentation of the Administration's proposed budget invariably triggers partisan political bickering over which programs should be funded and which should be cut, Cox said, instead of focusing attention on how much money should be spent and how much to raise or cut taxes.

Cox argued that in everyday life, for example, a family doesn't set out to spend money on furniture, carpets and other accessories without knowing first how much money is available in the household budget. The federal government should operate the same way, Cox said.

His proposed budgeting system would require the President and Congress to agree to a basic, one-page budget with spending totals for each of the 19 government functions now funded--everything from national defense to education. Details of how the money should be allocated within those 19 general areas could not be debated until both sides agree to the overall spending limit.

Once that figure is agreed upon, Congress could not change the figure or exceed the spending limits. If Congress did exceed the spending caps, the President could go through the budget and, line by line, cut back spending to the budgeted level. And it would require a two-thirds vote of the Congress to restore cuts the President may have made.

If Congress and the President are unable to agree on the grand total by the time the budget deadline rolls around, the previous year's spending would be automatically reauthorized, reducing the possibility of budget gridlock, Cox argued.

Sounds good, said Keating, of the National Taxpayers Union, which supports the proposed budgeting idea, unless one side does not agree with the other's spending cuts. "A President who doesn't want to spend less [than the previous year] might prefer gridlock," Keating said, adding that by doing nothing the President could avoid cuts Congress wanted to make.

Cox and Largent would like Congress to vote on the new budget rules when it raises the $4.9-trillion debt ceiling to keep the government from going broke.

The timing of that vote, however, is also gridlocked.

Republicans threatened not to raise the debt ceiling unless the Clinton Administration first agreed to GOP tax and spending cuts designed to balance the budget in seven years. The White House, raising the specter of a government default, accused the Republicans of "playing with fire." For now, the Republicans have backed off.

If the Cox plan does not make it this year, he said he will try again next year. "Every day is a new opportunity to get this done and some day, we are going to get lucky," Cox said.

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