WASHINGTON — SINCE the balanced-budget amendment failed in the House of Representatives earlier this month, the place has not been quite the same.
A certain reluctance to spend the public's money has taken hold among members of Congress. Few are confident that it will last or lead to significant shrinkage of the federal deficit. But this Congress clearly has something to prove about spending.
This is the season when Congress spends money. Thirteen appropriations bills covering every area of federal spending are rolling out of committees and onto the House floor for approval.
Four of them have been voted through the House in the past two weeks. All four spending bills were cut there - below what President Bush requested, below what the Appropriations Committee and subcommittees approved.
So far, the cuts are really hundreds of nicks across the federal board that have added up to several billion dollars. The bigger tests are coming, probably this week, as the most expensive appropriations bills move to the floor. More sweeping measures are also under negotiation. In the House Budget Committee, members are working on a new set of deficit-cutting targets with automatic measures for discipline.
One aspect under debate is whether a failure to meet the targets would trigger an automatic tax increase as well as spending cuts. Another is how tight the deficit targets would be in the first year. The original proposal by House Budget Committee chairman Leon Panetta (D) of California cut $12 billion from next year's deficit. More than $7 billion of that has already been cut, even without the new targets.
"There are clearly signs that people are feeling guilty about their budget votes," says Stan Collender, a federal budget expert for the accounting firm, Price Waterhouse. Mr. Collender sees two things happening. Members of Congress are taking as many nicks from the budget as they can to show they're serious about budget-cutting even after voting down the balanced-budget amendment. But they also continue to find new ways to expand their spending.
Two weeks ago, Congress passed a $1.1 billion urban aid bill. Since it was declared an emergency, it did not have to be offset by budget savings elsewhere.
A couple months earlier, the House voted to loosen the earnings penalties for Social Security recipients. The cost: $7.3 billion. But that was before the difficult, losing battle over the balanced-budget amendment.
"There's a spirit that is saying, `We've got to prove our deficit-cutting mettle', " says Paul Leonard, a budget analyst at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. It has brought, at the least, "an appearance of a greater concern for cutting the deficit."
Rep. Charles Stenholm (D) of Texas, the primary sponsor of the balanced-budget amendment bill, sees more frugal votes from his colleagues than he would have seen before, he says, due to greater deficit consciousness and also sheer political pressure.
One skeptic, budget analyst Dan Mitchell of the Heritage Foundation, believes that the cuts on the Hill are merely cuts from already-inflated requests from the president. "It says more about how bad Bush is doing than how well Congress is doing," he says.
The biggest single casualty so far remains the Superconducting Supercollider, the giant, next-generation atom smasher under construction in Texas. The project has an estimated total cost of well over $8 billion. The Bush administration requested just $650 million for it in the next budget. The House cut it entirely.
Also cut deeply was foreign aid. The appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations cut a billion dollars out of the White House request, anticipating the treatment foreign aid would get on the House floor. The full House accepted the committee's cuts and took a little more, leaving a foreign aid budget of about $13.7 billion next year.
Congress's own budget, which pays for everything from congressional staff salaries to the Library of Congress operations, was cut $294 million from the White House request of $2.1 billion in the Appropriations Committee. Then it lost another $32 million on the House floor.
A hiring freeze is in effect on Capitol Hill. The Energy and Water appropriation, which includes the Super Collider and other big projects, lost altogether $1.1 billion on the House floor.
The emergency aid bill is perhaps an apt example of Congress's approach. Members rebuffed a $2 billion bill proposed by the House leadership. It was certain to be vetoed by President Bush, but many Democrats were willing to force Bush to veto urban aid. Then House members, eager not to be seen as big spenders, cut nearly $1 billion out of the bill. So they still increased the deficit for urban aid by more than $1 billion, but by less than they might have.