House Democrats Renege

January 07, 1991

House Democrats got the 102nd Congress off to an outrageous start by reneging on an essential provision of the five-year budget control plan. Why one party in one chamber thinks it has the right to sabotage an agreement laboriously negotiated by both parties in both houses is a matter that ought to concern all voters. It underscores the danger of giving the Democrats what amounts to a permanent majority on Capitol Hill.

That House Republicans responded in a ham-handed way, muddying the issue by trotting out their perennial balanced-budget amendment, in no way lets the Democratic leadership off the hook. Speaker Tom Foley has to decide whether he wants continuous acrimony over budget matters. He has to decide whether it is worth it to placate powerful committee chairmen at the cost of any chance at bipartisan harmony.

What is at issue is as important as it is arcane. Under the 1990 budget agreement, the White House Office of Management and Budget was given authority to estimate the budget impact of entitlement spending and tax bills. This is a grant of real power because under the agreement any deficit increases caused by new legislation have to be offset to make the result budget neutral. It is in line with the Supreme Court's Gramm-Rudman decision that the implementation of budget adjustments must be under executive branch control.

Democratic liberals are concerned that the OMB, with its history of political manipulation, might hike Medicaid estimates, for example, to force a clampdown on welfare spending. But a deal is a deal. And the deal signed just two months ago had been worked out in great specificity with the full knowledge of House Democratic leaders.

House Republicans are justified in feeling betrayed. Senators from both parties are justified in rebuffing any diktat by the House. And the Bush administration is justified in threatening to veto any money measure that seeks to switch score-keeping power from OMB to the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation (both Democrat controlled).

One of the few encouraging aspects of last year's budget battle was a new-found readiness on the part of OMB and CBO to reconcile their economic projections. Speaker Foley now should pick up on this. He should offer to return to the provisions of the new law if House Republicans will accept a minor improvement requiring OMB to make its impact estimates just before, rather than just after, bills are passed.

It is deplorable to contemplate a Congress condemned to partisan strife from the first gavel, especially with a war threatening in the Persian Gulf and a recession already engulfing the nation. This danger should be eliminated -- and quickly.

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