Nixon's revenge lingers in budget process

Reform? Congress moved to deal with excesses of a disgraced presidency by creating its own structure. It has grown into a whole new kind of mess.

October 06, 2002|By James Jaffe | James Jaffe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

IN WHAT'S become a sad annual ritual, the federal government is entering a new fiscal year without a budget. Is this another example of Richard Nixon's revenge?

Nearly 30 years ago, Congress responded to the excesses of the disgraced and deposed Nixon presidency by passing two major reforms. One involved campaign finance. It was replaced this year when reformers became convinced that it had become more of a problem than a solution. The other was budget reform -- designed to redress a perceived imbalance between Congress and the White House and impose a neater, reliable structure on what is inevitably a complex and messy process.

Presidents are always frustrated about their lack of power, and Nixon was more frustrated than most. His decision to refuse to spend money Congress had allocated did not sit easily with the legislators.

So once he was gone, they created an entire budget bureaucracy designed to give them parity in the process. True parity is never possible because the White House always speaks with a single voice and Congress never does. And, as often happens, several different games were played simultaneously.

While powerful senior congressmen wanted to wrest power from the White House, the new reformist post-Watergate legislators lusted after some of the power previously hoarded by senior members.

The resulting product was a victory for good government types and the policy elite. A new agency, the Congressional Budget Office, would be staffed by budget analysts, a specialty that barely existed before.

It would provide a check on the White House's Office of Management and Budget and ensure that the books weren't cooked. There were reasons Nixon's foes referred to him as "Tricky." It also provided an alternative way of cooking the books.

A new budget committee in each house would be charged with setting broad targets that the more parochial appropriations and authorizing committees would have to adhere to. The budget panels would supervise a procedure allowing Congress to create its own budget rather than tinkering with the one submitted by the White House. This result was clearly seen during the 1980s when House Democrats regularly declared the Reagan budget submissions dead on arrival and wrote their own.

And, because doing things right would take time, the start of the fiscal year was shifted from July 1 to Oct. l, resulting in the creation of an asterisked anomaly, the transition quarter. As luck would have it, the bicentennial celebration took place just after this statistical orphan began. From an accounting perspective, it was as if time stopped for three months.

It was a heady time.

"Congress has designed a new budget system that works," said Sen. Edmund Muskie, Maine Democrat, the first chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "We can make and enforce the hard choices necessary to achieve fiscal discipline."

Things have gone downhill since.

There's been a realization that the deadline doesn't matter because Congress doesn't act until it is near and consequences are real -- such as the shutdown of the government. So it continues to delay until the end appears near -- and that's in the good years.

Not a good year

Clearly this is not one of the good years. The government's budget requires enactment of 13 appropriations bills. All are pending.

The reforms were initially hailed by the policy elite, who saw them as not only a slap at loutish politicians like Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, who had a tendency to write rules on the run, but also as an affirmation of the historic posture that the government should be run by experts on policy -- a group that looked suspiciously similar to the policy elite.

Members of this class were too high-minded to have been motivated by the ward boss' calculation that this would result in the creation of a lot of good, powerful jobs for their friends and proteges, but they weren't so blind as to have missed this point entirely. In recent years, we've seen the first retirements by those who spent their careers working in the congressional budget bureaucracy. They are the legislative equivalents of the first astronauts.

Although the system has served them well, Some members of this group have now reached the surprising, but probably inevitable, conclusion that the new system isn't working any better than the old one.

At times, it hasn't worked at all, leading to the spectacle of closing down the government, which didn't happen in the old days.

Missed deadlines

Deadlines are still missed. No one now thinks adding another transition quarter would help. And discipline has been less than expected, suggesting that procedures are not adequate protections against irresponsible deficit spending.

Last year, there was a brief blip from reformers who suggested that Congress adopt a two-year budget cycle, which some states have, thereby giving it twice as much time to get things right. But few were confident it would work and the idea evaporated before entering civilian consciousness.

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