WASHINGTON — Congress Thursday reaffirmed $11.7 billion in spending cuts for this fiscal year made under the Gramm-Rudman law in March but declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which threw out the law's automatic mechanism that triggered such reductions.
The vote, taken quickly in both houses with little fanfare, was the first test of congressional resolve to live within the law's deficit-cutting guidelines in the wake of the court decision last week. However, it left Congress still struggling with the more troubling prospect of even larger spending reductions for fiscal 1987, which begins Oct. 1.
The House approved this fiscal year's cuts by an overwhelming 339 to 72. The Senate gave its approval on voice vote, with no audible dissent.
Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), one of the law's authors, described the action as "a vote in good faith to fulfill our obligations in carrying out a commitment to the American people" to balance the budget.
It was just such a vote that Congress--frustrated with its inability to bring the deficit under control--had hoped to avoid when it passed the landmark Gramm-Rudman law last year.
"Congress is being forced back to earth," House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) said. "We must make the tough decisions. No . . . chief executioner is going to make them for us."
As the law originally was written, the government would make the cuts automatically if Congress failed to reach deficit-reduction targets that would yield a balanced budget within five years. To put pressure on the Reagan Administration and Congress, lawmakers devised a formula under which the cuts would be equally divided between defense and domestic programs, exempting some social programs.
But the Supreme Court ruled that the "automatic trigger" provision of the law breached the Constitution's separation of powers doctrine because it gave the comptroller general, an unelected officer of Congress, the power to order cuts that would be carried out by the executive branch.
Thus, the court forced Congress into the law's fallback provision, which requires it to approve a resolution calling for the cuts and send it to President Reagan for signature. Reagan has indicated that he will sign into law the bill reaffirming the fiscal 1986 cuts.
The first round of cuts last March was relatively mild and caused little disruption. They amounted to 4.9% in Pentagon program reductions and 4.3% in domestic cuts. Cost-of-living increases in federal pensions and some other programs were canceled.
Only hours after the court decision, the National Treasury Employees Union announced that it was filing suit to recover what it estimated was more than $1 billion in inflationary increases denied 1.5 million retired federal employees.
However, overall opposition to reaffirming the reductions was muted, in part because restoring the money that earlier had been cut would have added $20 billion to the amount that Congress must reduce from the deficit to reach the law's fiscal 1987 target of $144 billion.
Some lawmakers suggested, nonetheless, that the vote provided an opportunity to reassess the wisdom behind enacting the law.
"I think the Supreme Court has done us a favor in slowing this down," said California Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Los Angeles). "We should look at the process itself."
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) added: "We should be repealing Gramm-Rudman, not repeating it."
Vote a 'Minor Test'
Compared with the cuts Congress may have to make for fiscal 1987, Thursday's vote was "a minor test--and I stress minor," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said.
While Congress last month approved a budget that technically would meet the fiscal 1987 target, few believe that it will implement the spending plan in time for the beginning of the new fiscal year. Moreover, White House Budget Director James C. Miller III said Monday that a sluggish economy alone threatens to add another $10 billion to the deficit.
The law's authors, unsure of whether Congress will have the political fortitude to approve the painful spending cuts only weeks before this fall's congressional elections, are searching for a means of restoring the threat of automatic reductions without violating the Constitution.
One option, expected to be presented today by the law's authors, would transfer power to order the cuts to the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. However, many in Congress are opposed to that plan, fearing that it would allow the Administration to manipulate the reductions and spare the programs it favors most.
Times staff writer Bob Secter contributed to this story.