Seeing Red

    Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, Washington’s leading economic guru, was on Capitol Hill this week to warn Congress that rising budget deficits will cause the economy “to stagnate or worse.”

    Despite that warning, lawmakers were once again in the throes of failing to pass a joint House-Senate budget resolution, the deadline for which was April 15. Congress is alarmingly casual about meeting that deadline. It has done so only six times in the last 30 years, according to Congress’ own researchers.

    Worse than failing to meet that deadline is the failure to pass any budget at all, which Congress, with Republicans firmly in control, has done the last two years and appears to be on the verge of doing so for a third.

    Without a budget, the lawmakers have no spending guidelines. The 13 spending bills that fund the government each year are enacted piecemeal with no real regard for the whole and whatever is left undone _ and usually quite a bit is _ at the start of the new fiscal year is often wrapped into a single massive, let’s-just-be-done-with-it pork magnet known as an omnibus appropriations bill. There has been an omnibus bill in each of the last three years.

    To give Congress its due, there are often serious and intractable problems blocking agreement on a budget. This year, it’s if and how much to cut the growth in Medicaid spending.

    But it is no accident then that in the last two years there have been record budget deficits of $377 billion and $412 billion, and the next deficit is projected to be yet another record at $427 billion. These are unsustainable numbers.

    The blame for the deficits can be debated endlessly. Congress likes to spend and the White House has been a lax hand in trying to stop it. President Bush, who has yet to use his veto, has at times been complicit, supporting huge increases in farm subsidies and submitting large, emergency spending measures like the request for $81.9 billion, mostly to fund military operations in Iraq.

    But reining in the deficit has to start somewhere. And the best course is for lawmakers to get serious and adopt a systematic framework setting clear, enforceable spending and revenue targets _ something like a budget.

    (Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)