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No Innocent Bystanders

February 09, 1986

Congress is well on the way to losing its self-appointed role as innocent bystander when federal programs are savaged over the next five years to shrink the deficit. It cannot count on holding some computer's coat while it decides whether a college loan is less important than a new submarine, a submarine than a park, or a park than a college loan. It probably must make those painful decisions itself, the way the U.S. Constitution intended it to do.

That is part of the message of last week's ruling by a special federal appeals court that found unconstitutional the most important, and most obnoxious, part of the Gramm-Rudman budget-balancing act.

That feature would have turned over to the Comptroller General, in effect Washington's highest ranking auditor, the job of cutting the budget if Congress failed to get it below a level of spending to be determined by the educated guesses of two groups of economists, neither of which ever agree on anything.

The appeals court found unanimously that Congress cannot "vest executive power" to cut the budget "in the comptroller general, an officer removable by Congress." "The balance of separated powers established by the Constitution consists precisely of a series of technical provisions that are more important to liberty than superficially appears," the court said.

The U.S. Supreme Court could take a different view when it makes its own ruling later this spring. It could say that it's all right for Congress to let accountants and bureaucrats, using some arbitrary formula, slice off the tops of programs on which millions of people depend for everything from health care to highways, without regard to merit or priority. But the strong language of the appellate decision suggests that Congress should not hold its breath.

The Gramm-Rudman targets that "promise" a balanced budget at the end of five years were left standing, as was the portion of the law that said Congress could slash the budget itself with a simple majority vote in both chambers.

Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kans.) laments that the loss of Gramm-Rudman would take the heat off Congress to meet the schedule of deficit reductions the law set forth, but in fact it does not even turn down the flame. The targets remain. So does the urgent necessity to slow down the growth of a national debt that has doubled to nearly $2 trillion in President Reagan's five years in office.

The other message in the appeals court decision is that the budget will be, as it should be, decided in an old-fashioned showdown over national priorities. The White House had talked of sitting by, like Madame LaFarge absorbed in her knitting, waiting in silence for the guillotine to fall on programs it does not want.

There will, for example, be an open debate on whether Star Wars is more important than financial aid for large parts of the United States where people don't know what President Reagan is talking about when he rhapsodizes about prosperity. The court ruling will make it necessary to choose defense systems on their merits rather than cutting the good along with the bad.

The nation cannot prosper without slowing the growth of its debt. It can get some of what it needs with budget cuts. The rest must come from tax increases that would not threaten growth; energy is a prime candidate. Reaching agreement on the right balance of both needs a level of human judgment that computers cannot achieve.

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