Congress has never made much progress in reducing the federal budget deficit each year, despite "goals" and "targets" supposedly imposed by the Gramm-Rudman law. Now Congress appears to have abandoned even the appearance of effort, at least temporarily.
Since the Gramm-Rudman law was signed in 1985, the deficit has actually gotten worse. It was $220 billion for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 - the second-highest total on record.Faced with Gramm-Rudman targets calling for $100 billion in spending cuts for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, Congress tied itself in knots, nearly shut down the federal government, angered voters and finally produced a so-called deficit reduction package nearly a month late.
So what is the result of that incredibly inept performance? The budget deficit for this year will not shrink by a single penny. Just the opposite, in fact. Estimates of the deficit for the 1990-91 fiscal year are projected at more than $250 billion, a record.
Clearly, it doesn't matter what deficit-reduction laws are on the books. If Congress cannot or will not discipline itself, such laws are meaningless.
Since Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction targets are essentially fiction - and have been from the beginning - Congress decided to do something about it, namely make the targets impossible to miss.
This restructuring of Gramm-Rudman - the name is now almost a misnomer - passed in the middle of the night without debate and with little recognition. Many members of Congress were surprised to learn later what they had done.
The law will still specify annual targets through 1993, but they will be revised each year to reflect economic changes. If the economy produces $100 billion less revenue than expected, for example, the deficit target will be reduced. In addition, the target will not count items like the S&L bailout or spending for emergencies like the Persian Gulf conflict. The recent changes in the so-called budget-balancing law make a deficit reduction "target" almost impossible to miss.
The new budgetmaking law divides federal spending into three categories - domestic, defense and foreign affairs - and puts a spending cap on each. Money cannot be switched from one category to another. For example, funds slashed from defense spending cannot be transferred into domestic programs.
If the cap is exceeded, most programs in that category would be slashed by an amount equal to the excess spending. Any new programs would have to be balanced by new revenue or cuts in other existing programs.
Some improvement! The caps are loose, allowing big expansions in Medicare and Medicaid. If the caps are exceeded, Medicaid would be exempt from any sequestering of funds. Social Security is exempt from everything.
At bottom, the basic question remains: If Congress could not live with Gramm-Rudman, what guarantee is there that the nation's lawmakers will abide by the new spending caps?
Once again, new budget laws are still no substitute for old-fashioned self-discipline on the part of Congress.