A $500 Billion Deal-ay

The dealmaking that created the huge spending bill Congress will vote for tomorrow wasn't elegant. But then the legislative process seldom is.

Democrats blame the GOP Congress for going into extra innings (the fiscal year started Oct. 1), while Republicans say the president was distracted. Both are partly right.

Republicans failed to pass a budget last spring and get the spending bills done on time because they couldn't agree on priorities. By dithering until the end, they gave President Clinton far more leverage in the endgame than he would otherwise have had.

Mr. Clinton, for his part, was AWOL on the budget during much of the spring and summer. It's as if he forgot about his January State of the Union address, emerging only to issue occasional veto threats. In the end, he deftly seized the opportunity handed him - once again - by the GOP and forced Congress to back down on several issues.

The final compromise leaves some in both parties unhappy. By necessity it contains a lot of trade-offs. That's what happens with a president of one party and a Congress of the other. As one Republican puts it, Democrats are happy because they got money; Republicans because they got policy.

Both sides are already putting their spin on the result. Clinton says every penny of the surplus was saved for Social Security. That's nonsense. The president insisted on several items of "emergency" spending. The GOP tossed in defense-spending hikes. The total runs up to $20 billion. Almost every penny comes right out of the surplus. Much of the spending should have been included in the regular budget and paid for with cuts elsewhere.

The scorecard on several controversial issues is mixed:

Education. The White House says it got a "down payment" on 100,000 new school teachers. What it really got was one-year funding for about 30,000 teachers. Either way, that approach is simply throwing money at the problem. The quality of instruction, not the size of classrooms, is the issue that needs addressing. The White House attempt to dictate class sizes is an unwelcome federal intrusion into a state responsibility. The GOP mitigated that somewhat by insisting the money go directly to school districts.

Foreign policy. Congress agreed to fund an $18 billion in new capital for the International Monetary Fund, while extracting administration agreement to push needed reforms. Lawmakers also agreed to pay the United Nations enough money to preserve US voting rights in the General Assembly. Both were must-pass items.

Agriculture. The GOP agreed to increase the amount of disaster aid to farmers, but rightly resisted Democratic attempts to undo agriculture reforms passed in the last Congress.

Census. The two sides wisely decided to defer the debate over using public-opinion sampling to complete the 2000 Census and let the Supreme Court rule on its constitutionality.

It's good that the government is funded. But lawmakers and the White House should not have waited until the last minute and then thrown in everything but the kitchen sink. It will take weeks to find all that's been tucked in the bill.

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