Fiscal indiscipline

The supplemental spending bill Congress passed last week showed a disappointing lack of fiscal discipline.

The $15 billion measure started as a request from President Clinton for $1 billion in hurricane relief for Central America and the Caribbean. Then it picked up $900 million in tornado relief for Oklahoma and the Midwest. Then $574 million to help struggling American farmers. Those are all valid emergencies.

Later, the president asked for $6 billion to fund the war in Yugoslavia and aid Kosovar refugees. Also a legitimate emergency request.

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But a funny thing happened on the way to final passage. As so often happens with such measures, the bill became a three-trailer truck on the pork-barrel highway. First, Congress doubled Clinton's military request, throwing in a military pay and pension hike. The pay raise is needed, but the pension increase creates huge liabilities lawmakers will regret later.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, self-proclaimed pork-buster and presidential candidate, counted an additional $1.2 billion in projects that bypassed the normal appropriations process. Unrelated policy provisions were added, benefiting the oil and mining industries, Alaskan crabbers, and reindeer ranchers. These aren't emergencies, and there's no excuse for them in this bill.

The bill also prevents the federal government from recovering any of the $250 billion the states are collecting from their tobacco settlement and allows them to spend it as they see fit, rather than on antismoking programs. That may be the right move, but it, too, doesn't belong in this bill.

Some pork was blocked

It could have been worse. Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia wanted to include a special loan program to benefit certain steel companies hurt by foreign competition, including one in his state. Likewise Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico proposed helping small oil and gas producers. Happily, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois put his foot down; the proposals will have to be voted on separately.

Still, all but $2 billion of this "emergency" spending comes directly from the federal surplus - which means, this year at least, it all comes from the Social Security trust fund.

Any extra spending would normally be subject to the budget caps in the 1997 balanced-budget act. Those caps tighten every day; even many Republicans believe they will have to be raised. But by placing the spending in an "emergency" bill, Congress gets around the caps, easing the problem (on paper) later in the year when the 13 annual spending bills come up.

Meanwhile, House appropriators appear to have a strategy for lifting the caps. They'll first pass the smaller spending bills plus defense, leaving the two bills funding the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Veterans, and Housing and Urban Development Departments until last. Those bills would take a whopping $16 billion cut to stay within the caps.

That will cause a stalemate, with neither Republicans nor Democrats wanting to be seen as lifting the caps. Both sides will then bow to necessity and lift them in a bipartisan spirit - or so the theory goes. Democrats, however, might conclude they have as much to gain from a stalemate as from a deal.

Again, unless spending is offset by cuts elsewhere to stay within the '97 limits, the money will come from the Social Security trust-fund surplus, despite pledges on all sides to protect that program.

Trimming the size of government

The way to avoid lifting the caps and lowering the surplus is to reduce the size of the federal government. It's an option that needn't be attractive only to conservatives. Regarding the military, for example, more needs to be spent in equipment and readiness, but the Pentagon is still saddled with bases and weapons systems Congress loves but the military doesn't.

If Congress and the president can cooperate on a little fiscal discipline, the surplus can be preserved for paying down the debt or reforming Social Security; a modest tax cut can be enacted; defense readiness can be improved; and spending in some areas - education, perhaps - could increase.

A responsible way to get there would be to repeat the 1997 budget negotiations between the White House and the ranking members of the House and Senate Budget Committees. Those talks weren't popular on either side of the aisle, but they worked. Democrats and Republicans need to abandon the quest for political advantage and do what's in the best interest of the country.

The emergency spending bill left little doubt that finding fiscal discipline remains an uphill battle. But it has to be fought and won.

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