Offsets, Anyone?

Remember, this is the Congress that prided itself last year on reaching a balanced budget agreement. But 1998 is a new year, surpluses loom, and who quibbles about an overbudget billion or two?

It all depends. If those billions in expenditures beyond last year's agreement happen to be for disaster relief, or troop commitments in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf, quibblers abound. Not that they wouldn't pay for these clearly justified emergency items. They simply demand "offsets" to ensure the spending doesn't bust the caps agreed to last year.

Now shift the scene to the transportation bill cruising toward enactment. Here, not a couple of billion, but $26 billion, is at issue. That's the amount by which the House version of this bill exceeds the 1997 budget pact. Think of the offsets involved here! Whole programs will have to make way for bridges and highways.

In fact, few members of Congress are thinking about it. The transportation measure has cleared both houses with only minor outbursts over offsets. Strong fiscal conservatives, like House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich (R) of Ohio, raised a protest, but the legislative cavalcade motored on, heedless.

How to explain such contradictory behavior?

Well, in the first instance - the emergency appropriations bill for disaster relief and military operations - the amount was relatively small, making offsets relatively easy (though still politically sensitive). Moreover, the bill provided House critics of the administration an opportunity to pick a fight - by finding their offsets in education and housing programs dear to the White House.

In the second instance, transportation, the political succulence of the bill overwhelmed all else. Offsets must be found, but the difficulty of that task is easily outweighed by the exhilaration of presenting home-district voters with smoother roadways. Nearly everyone in Congress gets something in this bill - and the doling of projects will continue when the measure pulls into House-Senate conference negotiations. The tab may yet top the House's $218 billion.

This is quintessential business as usual for Congress. True, a case can be made for substantial spending on transportation infrastructure. But this is supposed to be a new era, fiscally, in Washington. Clearly, those faithful to that "revolution" still have their work cut out for them.

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