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Passing a Budget: The House

After one nasty screwup, the dominant party in the Senate had passed a budget resolution. The House had no dominant party; its action was therefore almost a parody of everything bad that has ever been said about Congress. Disorganization? Posturing? Legislation by exhaustion? The House provided these—and more. About all that can be said of the House's activities is that they were very (small "d") democratic. Everybody had a say; although agreement may have been achieved only through fatigue and creative accounting (that fooled no one), the result did represent opinion on the House floor.

"There are three ways you can pass a budget," said Representative Timothy E. Wirth of Colorado. "One is to get all the Democrats. A second is to get all the Republicans and the weevils. And a third is to find a compromise right in the middle."[53] Or maybe there was no way. No one expected to unite all the Democrats. The 1981 Republican/weevil coalition was in shambles because of gypsy moth dismay about priorities and boll weevil distaste for deficits; and the ranks of centrist Republicans and Democrats—Frostbelt moderates, some Sunbelt conservatives and moderate loyalists, maybe a few of the responsible conservatives—were unlikely to yield a majority. Nonetheless, Wirth and his "Gang of Five" partners (Panetta, Mineta, Gephardt, Aspin) went to work with gypsy moths to design a centrist budget. James Jones and Delbert Latta, meanwhile, worked the partisan sides of the budget track.

On Thursday, May 6, ten gypsy moths told James Baker that it would be "politically stupid" and "indefensible" for them to vote for the Senate budget plan. They released their own alternative, which included greater reductions in the defense buildup, higher social spending, and no foolishness on social security. On Friday, Republicans Jim Jeffords (Vt.), Jim Leach (Iowa), and Tom Tauke (Iowa), along with the centrist Democrat Gang of Five, signed a bipartisan budget plan. "I would like to work with my own party," proclaimed Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.). "But we have been pushing and pushing and we haven't got any response. I think we need to work with the Democrats."[54] This moderate proposal, known as the Aspin budget after its Wisconsin Democrat coauthor, would test the proposition that there was a hidden moderate majority.

On May 13 the House Budget Committee, in a party-line vote (Phil Gramm abstained), adopted a plan that claimed to meet the Senate's


deficit reduction targets but relied on substantially higher tax ($147 billion versus $102.3 billion in the final Senate version) and defense savings ($47 billion versus $22 billion) to achieve that deficit target. This was the Jones budget. Essentially, it matched the Democratic Gang-of-17 proposal but left out social security and cut defense more.[55]

Robert Michel established a nineteen-member group (including five boll weevils and four gypsy moths) to try to recreate the Republicans' 1981 coalition. "It was like being in a snake pit," reported Silvio Conte, both a party leader and a gypsy moth. "The boll weevils gave some. We gave some."[56] On May 19 Conte and others joined GOP leaders in announcing support for what would be called the Latta budget, with totals similar to the Senate's plan. But, by further cutting domestic discretionary programs ($41.3 billion versus $27 billion) and through matching the other House plans for larger "management initiative" savings, as "iffy" as could be imagined, Latta projected a lower deficit.

David Obey and the Black Caucus each proposed more liberal budgets; Republicans John Rousselot and William Dannemeyer of California proposed a plan that had massive social spending cuts so as to achieve balance. California Democrat George Miller produced a "pay-as-you-go" plan: spending would be frozen, and then all increases, including those in defense, would be funded by new taxes. This was a neat variation on Miller's theme that the military "spenders" created deficits (see his comments on the 1980 reconciliation).

Having tried to limit choices in 1981, House leaders now maximized them. One Democratic leader recalls, "There was … a good deal of frustration in the House; everybody thought they could come up with something politically and economically acceptable. I figured, let them see how easy it was." In addition to looking at seven comprehensive budgets, they proposed a rule that would allow extensive amendments to the three main proposals. First, the House would vote on the Miller, Obey, Black Caucus, and Rousselot plans, in that order. Then amendments could be offered, applicable to any of the three main alternatives (Aspin, Jones, and Latta). All three would be debated simultaneously. Then Latta, Aspin, and Jones would be voted on in sequence. The last one to get a majority would win. It was, Richard Bolling admitted, a "very complicated" and "unique" rule. But the Republicans found it fair, and there was no rule fight.[57]

"Does Anyone Have a Budget?" Time asked, and then described how it appeared to outsiders:

Seven competing budgets. Flocks of nuisance amendments proposed for the sole reason of forcing opponents to cast embarrassing "no" votes….

The scene in the House, which begins voting on the budget this week,


was fairly close to legislative anarchy…. House Republican leaders produced a budget that looks very much like the Senate document but, somehow, projects $15 billion less spending. How did they accomplish this feat? An aide to Senate Republican chiefs had a simple answer: "They lie." Retorted an aide to the House GOP leaders, "Our numbers are no phonier than anyone else's."[58]

On May 24 the Miller, Obey, and Black Caucus plans were defeated; each received almost no Republican support. The next day the Rousselot plan lost by 242 to 182, receiving 47 Democratic votes but losing by 53 Republican defections, almost all Frostbelt moderates. The Rousselot vote may be the best measure of the ideological thrust within the House to balance the budget by drastically cutting spending: the cutters were outnumbered.

During the votes on the three major resolutions, Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) offered a crucial amendment. She proposed to increase medicare and decrease defense spending in all three budget plans. When her amendment was offered to the Latta plan, about 60 conservative Republicans chose it as an opportunity to express unhappiness with that plan and to remind Robert Michel that he could not take them for granted. Accordingly, they voted "present." Their moderate colleagues, however, seeing that Oakar had a chance to win, voted for her amendment and were joined by diehard liberals and moderate loyalists. This victory by the Democratic/Frostbelt coalition left the Latta plan with lower defense numbers (by $4.5 billion in FY83) than conservatives could accept yet with larger social cuts than moderates could stomach. It was widely argued to have ensured defeat of the Latta plan, which lost 235 to 192 as 20 Republicans defected.[59]

In spite of pleas by Democratic and Republican leaders that the House pass something—anything—all three plans were defeated. The Aspin, supposedly centrist, budget turned out to have no real base, losing 109 to 129 among Democrats and gaining only 29 Republicans. Jones's plan also was beaten decisively, 253 to 171.[60] Republicans were unanimous against Jones because the rule gave moderates a chance both to oppose Latta and to vote for the Aspin alternative; so the gypsy moths' discontent did not help the Democrats.[61]

The leaders had one trick left. Following seven budget defeats, the original HBC plan (without the amendments added during floor debate) came up for a vote. "We come to the moment of decision," declared the Speaker. "The hour is late. Most Americans have retired for the evening. Tomorrow morning, when they wake up, I want them to know that Congress did its job and passed a budget."[62] The members weren't interested in what anybody thought at breakfast, at least not on the Budget


Committee's terms, and voted down the eighth plan 265 to 159. Surveying the wreckage, Les Aspin commented, "Right now, you haven't got the votes out there to pass the Lord's Prayer."[63]

President Reagan denounced the budget process as "the most irresponsible, Mickey Mouse arrangement that any governmental body ever practiced."[64] For some reason he had not felt that way when he prevailed under the same rules in 1981; ridicule, moreover, would not produce a budget.

Politicians were beginning to wonder why they should go through so much pain to get down to a $100 billion dollar deficit. But people don't necessarily get to choose their problems. Or, if they have chosen them, it becomes hard to avoid them when there is an audience. The audience remained, not so much the voters as the markets. Something had to be done about interest rates; and so, in the logic of the time, something had to be done about the deficit.[65] The next event reflected the seemingly contradictory notions that unless something were done about the budget, disaster portended;[66] because budget resolutions didn't mean much anyway, however, any resolution would do. Basically, the Democratic leadership chose to force adopting a budget even if the Republicans were to win.

"I think the Speaker felt," one leader recalls, "that this was a Republican game, don't muddy it up, and we would straighten it out through the election." To clarify the choice, both parties moved away from the center. "At least we'll go with the true philosophy of our party," said Tip O'Neill. "To pass something," said Delbert Latta for the other party, "we have to go farther to the right."[67] Democratic leaders estimated that a more liberal proposal might attract only about 180 votes, but they still added a few billion dollars in social spending to the Jones budget.[68] Bowing to the lesson of the Oakar amendment, Republicans cut medicare by less, but they financed the change by reducing medicaid and nutrition programs.

"Will we do what the medieval bleeders did," Jim Wright responded, "and, if the patient doesn't respond to the first bleeding, bleed him some more?"[69] Yet while the Republicans were leaning on their members to vote for the Latta proposal, Wright told reporters, "Last week the official party line vote was to vote against Latta. This week, the official party line vote was to vote for Jones. After the Jones vote, we told everyone to vote his conscience."[70] First the Jones and then the Latta budgets would be considered as amendments to the original Reagan budget. If both failed, Congress would have to vote on the original Reagan budget, a prospect few Republicans wished to contemplate. When Jones failed, therefore, Republicans had an extra incentive to vote for Latta.


Jones lost 202 to 225; 39 Democratic defectors made the difference. Then Latta passed, 221 to 208, supported by 46 Democrats and opposed by 15 Republicans. On the final vote to pass the budget as amended by the Latta substitute, Republicans again won 221 to 207, as symbolic votes against the deficit by "opposers" were offset by new defections among moderate-to-conservative Democrats.[71]

Happy to end the long fight, the representatives cheered the Latta budget's passage on the House floor. Hawaii Democrat Cecil Heftel explained that the budget passed "not because it was a good budget or fair budget or an accurate budget. But because it was the only budget."[72]

Off went the plan to a conference dominated by three days of private meetings among Republicans. At the end of these meetings, conferees had pretty much accepted the House plans on revenue (slightly smaller increases) and defense (slightly larger reduction from Reagan's plan). The most objectionable of the Latta plan's entitlement cuts, for example, medicaid and food stamps, were sharply reduced, back to the numbers in the Senate plan. Discretionary spending choices tended toward the House position.

Conferees also moved to reduce the appearance of deficits, changing economic assumptions and accepting all the House's management initiatives. By conjuring up these reduced deficits, it became possible to predict lower interest payments. The Democrats scoffed at the result. Hollings declared, "We know it's out of whole cloth." And Domenici came back, "It has about as much realism as any budget we've produced." Fatigue leads to cynicism.[73]

Table 7 summarizes the conference report that squeaked through the two houses; now Congress had to make it come true. The congressional task was not as big as the totals suggested. Congress could not legislate the management and interest savings. Federal pay, as in 1981, was only being restrained relative to an unrealistic baseline. The defense and nondefense discretionary savings would begin in the FY83 appropriations, but they also depended on action for FY84 and FY85. With virtually no disagreement, the 1981 experiment in controlling appropriations through cutting discretionary program authorizations had been abandoned in early 1982. Republican leaders made clear they would not again do that to the authorizing committees.[74] Reconciliation instructions, therefore, covered only the entitlement and revenue changes, a third of the total savings.

A $100 billion tax hike would be difficult enough. Bob Dole and his allies, however, had spent most of the year putting a package together. The budget resolution would provide the argument that brought the president into their camp.


Table 7. The "Three-for-One" Package: Fiscal Year 1983 Budget Resolution for Three-Year (FY83–85) Deficit Reductions as Estimated by the Senate Budget Committee


Billions of $


As percentage of total

Revenues (including user fees)




Defense (except pay and pensions)




Nondefense discretionary

Entitlements (including COLAs)

Other program reductions (includes some user fee spending offsets)






Federal pay raises




Management savings

Net interest






(lower rates)



(lower borrowing)



Net non-revenue








Source: Senate Budget Committee estimates, June 23, 1982 (typescript).

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