This originally appeared in Newsday on May 2, 1977
White House lobbying for a few extra billion dollars for the Pentagon has further eroded President Carter’s relations with Congress. Worse yet, it has jeopardized a three-year effort to reform the way Congress spends the taxpayers’ money. It may well be the most costly mistake of Carter’s first 100 days.
Last week the House was about to act on its Budget Committee’s recommendation that the Pentagon’s spending authority be set at a hardly miserly $109.8 billion in the next fiscal year. But the president had requested $111.9 billion, and he and Defense Secretary Harold Brown got on the phone to influential House members to insist that they would take nothing less.
An angry coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats responded to the White House pressure by voting the extra billions for the Pentagon – and then voting down the entire budget resolution. Unless the House leadership can pick up the pieces this week, Congress may well ignore its reformed budget procedure and revert to its old ways of simply allowing any committee to spend whatever it wants without regard to what the committee in the next room is spending. That would be a terrible price to pay for an increase of less than two per cent in what is already a record defense budget.
Meanwhile, the Senate Budget Committee, left high and dry after Carter’s sudden withdrawal of the $50 tax rebate, is stuck with a budget resolution that has far more economic stimulus than Carter now says he wants. Committee Chairman Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) is waiting for Carter to propose a substitute form of economic stimulus, but the White House apparently has no intention of doing so until long after the Senate’s deadline for approving spending and revenue targets for the next fiscal year. Muskie believes that will make a sham of the congressional budgetary process and threaten its very existence.
This is the year the new, more responsible budgetary procedures were supposed to become institutionalized. Instead, they’re a shambles. It will take an all-out effort by the congressional leadership – and the cooperation of the White House – to salvage them.