WASHINGTON — As presidential candidates debate how to use next year's budget surplus, Congress is rapidly spending it.
With time running out on the session, lawmakers are scurrying to add just one more bridge, dam, or highway to a must-pass spending bill. Or attach a "rider" that saves millions for a business, or one that puts off cleaning up a river.
It's the biggest binge of stealth legislating in anyone's memory. Critics say the flurry of spending could eat up much of the projected surplus - making the promises of both major-party presidential candidates far more costly, and perhaps signaling a return to Washington's 'big spender' days.
One of the biggest casualties in this time of deal-cutting, some say, could be the environment. A number of last-minute provisions slipped into bills create exemptions to environmental regulations, or delay their effect.
Of course, last-minute wheeling and dealing are generally
a part of end-of-session spending bills. But a new phenomenon - a huge projected surplus - is tempting lawmakers to cast discipline to the wind. Add to that temptation the politics of an election year, in which an intense battle for control of the US House is being waged, and it's a recipe for extravagance.
"This year is extreme - budget discipline has broken down completely," says James Horney, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
"No one has adjusted to surpluses, after 20 years of worrying about deficits," he adds. "In the absence of realistic rules, there's nothing left that inspires order in the system."
The spending caps worked out in the 1997 budget agreement (still officially in effect) would have set the discretionary budget for fiscal year 2001 at about $541 billion. Last spring, Congress set a new cap at $600 billion.
But the House has already voted some $625 billion in appropriations, and experts say final negotiations with President Clinton and the Senate could bump the tally to at least $640 billion.
If current spending trends continue over the next 10 years, Congress will eliminate two-thirds of the projected 10-year budget surplus.
"Instead of having a surplus of over $2 trillion, we would have a surplus of about $700 billion - a good sum of money, but far less than the cost of the presidential candidates' promises," says Robert Bixby, executive director of the Washington-based Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that advocates a balanced budget.
Much of what is driving all this spending is political: It's a big election year. Lawmakers are eager to get home to campaign. And one way the GOP leaders hope to get out of town is to give money both to the president's priorities and to pet projects of members of Congress - especially those in close races.
The pace of legislating is so accelerated that much of the new spending is never vetted by a congressional committee or debated on the floor of the House or Senate. And most lawmakers don't have time to read the giant appropriations bills that they're about to vote on.
Last week, Congress passed a $58 billion transportation bill that provided $3.4 billion more than the president requested - much of it added at the last minute:
&#8226;The Virginia delegation added $600 million for a bridge over the Potomac.
&#8226;The Houston district of House majority whip Tom DeLay (R) picked up $12 million for an air-traffic system.
&#8226;GOP Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, earmarked $43 million in new spending for his home state of Alaska, including $400,000 for a parking lot and pedestrian walk in the small town of Talkeetna.
GOP leaders insist they are holding the line against a free-spending president. "Our members are committed to setting aside 90 percent of the surplus. The president would spend it all," says Michele Davis, spokesman for House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas.
But to hard-core fiscal conservatives, this year's spending spree is a sellout. They blame GOP leaders for abandoning fiscal discipline.
"In previous years of Republican control, our task was preventing Congress from meeting the president's exorbitant demands," says Peter Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va. "This year, it's been to keep [Congress] from beating those exorbitant demands in even higher spending."
At the same time, environmental activists worry that last-minute riders with serious consequences for the environment could slip into law on the back of an appropriations bill.
To date, some 60 anti-environment riders have been attached to spending bills. Nineteen have been deleted or "fixed," and 41 are pending, according to the Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife.
These include provisions that would delay the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to clean up hazardous-waste sites, identify areas with hazardous levels of ozone, and develop new rules to decrease the levels of arsenic in drinking water. Others would exempt ranchers from environmental review when seeking new grazing permits.
"These provisions don't make it in stand-alone bills, because once the American public finds out about these laws, the bills are repudiated," says Mary Beth Beetham, director of legislative affairs for Defenders of Wildlife. "But once a rider is on a bill, it is impossible to get it off."
Environmental groups are counting on Mr. Clinton to knock out such provisions with the threat of a veto. On Saturday, the president vetoed the energy and water bill, which included a rider on the Missouri River that would threaten wildlife. But activists say they are concerned that other riders may make it through the budget process.
"This Congress has gone on a mad spending spree in the past few days, but what's also going on behind the scenes on the natural resources front is even more troubling," says Marty Hayden, legislative director of Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based environmental group. "These riders are where the bulk of environmental policy is now being made."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society