Checking the Checks


Each year Congress and the executive branch are supposed to meet dozens of deadlines set by the 1974 Budget Act. But in 1988, they met only one, when President Reagan submitted his budget to Congress in January. Now Rep. Christopher Cox (R–Calif.) is preparing a bill that would make the process of writing a budget simpler—and put in several checks to curb spending.

Under Cox's proposal, Congress would prepare a "one-page budget" early in the year. This plan would determine the total amount of government spending in each of the 19 categories that make up the budget. If Congress later exceeded the spending target for a given category, the president could rescind spending until the target was met. And before lawmakers could start a new program that wasn't part of the original one-page budget, two-thirds of them would have to vote for it.

If Congress didn't come up with an appropriations bill for an agency, the agency would be stuck at the previous year's budget level—a dramatic contrast to the status quo. Currently, if bills aren't passed on time, Congress authorizes a continuing resolution that allows an agency to spend "as much money as is necessary," giving bureaucrats the freedom to inflate their budgets.

Cox contends that his budget-creation method would check Congress's urge to create expensive new programs without worrying where the money is coming from. Spending on new programs, he says, "is the greatest source of budget growth. We [in Congress] assume that money for earthquake relief will come from somewhere."

Cox hopes to have 100 cosponsors when he introduces the bill in March. "There are enough Democrats who favor fiscal responsibility," he says, "that we can get this kind of fundamental reform passed."