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Cox Proposal Puts Revenue Horse Before Spending Cart : Budget: O.C. representative's bill would make Congress, President agree on totals before they fund programs.

October 24, 1995|GEBE MARTINEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Imagine the tough sales pitch facing Christopher Columbus when he could only rely on common sense in arguing that the world wasn't flat.

Or think about trying to persuade American motorists that they would have to begin driving on the left side of the road, instead of the right.

Now you may have some idea of the immense political and psychological hurdles facing Orange County Rep. Christopher Cox as he tries to persuade his colleagues in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, to mend their budgetary ways.

This is not a fight over how much to spend on Medicare or welfare or school lunches; it's about changing the ingrained habits of Congress, which first decides which pet projects it wants to fund, and then rings up a spending total that invariably exceeds the government's income.

Which is why the nation has had a chronic deficit--the "D" word that was driven into the national consciousness by H. Ross Perot in a nasal twang during his 1992 presidential campaign.

But long before Perot made deficit reduction a household term and the watchword of the current freshman class of Congress, Cox had begun crafting new budgeting rules that he believes will bring the deficit under control.

Instead of allowing Congress to revise the President's detailed budget--or come up with a completely different plan, as the Republican-led Congress did this year--Cox wants both sides to settle on the grand totals first, and then focus on the details later.

After years of building support for what he calls "common sense" budget reform, Cox believes this current Congress presents his best chance ever to win approval of proposals to be formally unveiled in the next few days.

"It's difficult to do, because it will probably be the most significant change in the entire federal budget system in the postwar era," said the Newport Beach Republican, exhibiting his lust for the less-than-sexy economic issues he is known to champion on Capitol Hill.

There's little debate in Washington that the current budget-writing system needs fixing. The federal government today is running on borrowed time--with a yet-to-be-raised debt ceiling that doesn't permit interim borrowing--because the Republican Congress and the Democratic President could not reach agreement on a new spending plan before the Oct. 1 deadline.

There's even talk now that they won't meet their extended deadline of Nov. 13, and could be haggling beyond Thanksgiving Day.

"Right now, the gridlock is nothing more than a negotiating tactic," Cox said. "Everyone knows that in one form or another a deal will be struck." His plan, he said, would "take away the incentive to play budget chicken," because of the political penalties built into the new proposal.

Like men taking on the herculean task of pushing a giant boulder up a mountain, Cox and his GOP allies need to make sure the rock doesn't roll back down on them.

The problem facing Cox and his co-captain on this effort, freshman Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), is how to devise a set of game rules that Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and moderates, powerful committee chairmen and maverick freshmen members can agree on.

Tax watchdog groups liken it to the term limits issue. Members of Congress said they favored term limits, and even publicly signed onto the notion that their years in Washington be capped. But as was seen earlier this year, several options went down in defeat on the House floor, after members haggled over the fine print.

To be successful, budget watchers say, any new budget rules must be fair--regardless of which political party controls Congress or the White House--yet not strip away the power of the purse strings that Republican leaders are just beginning to enjoy.

"The big question is going to be: Are the Republicans, who are in the position of power, going to be more open to reform than their Democratic predecessors were, particularly the chairmen of the committees?" asked Bryan Riley, a budget analyst for Citizens for a Sound Economy. "Are they going to be willing to see some of their powers moderated to get their spending under control?"

David Keating, one of the leaders of the National Taxpayers Union, is more to the point: "Never underestimate the powers of committee chairmen who are looking out for their turf." And protecting their ability to serve up pork, he might have added.

In defense of his plan, Cox argued the proposed reforms do not diminish the powers of key budget chairmen, but streamline the process to make their jobs a little easier. The only power being taken away, Cox maintained, is "the power to cheat. We're trying to take that away."

Cox's personal campaign to change how Congress makes spending decisions began in 1986, before he was elected to Congress and while he was working in relative obscurity as an attorney in the Reagan White House.

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