Congress Spends Its Allowance

New US budget shows that era of fiscal restraint in Washington is over.

It has been called a Frankenstein by its own creators - a $500 billion spending plan that is lumbering in size and made up of many mysterious parts.

But behind all the politics and pork in the new 4,000-page document lies what may be a truism about Washington in the late 1990s: Frugality is out.

While many would say it was never in, for years lawmakers in fact have been restrained in their habits by yawning deficits and mandated spending caps. But the first budget surplus in three decades has ushered in a new dynamic - one that, critics say, takes unrealistic advantage of a good economy.

The $500 billion plan passed by the Senate yesterday, and expected to be signed by President Clinton this week, blows preset spending caps agreed to a year ago by $7 billion. It earmarks another $22 billion in surplus funds for "emergency spending."

"At a time when the world economy is a little shaky, we have come to the end of fiscal restraint," says Carol Cox Wait, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Lauded as a success last week by both parties, the spending plan is a quilt of eight appropriations bills sewn together when Congress was unable to pass a budget. It amounts to roughly a third of the $1.7 trillion budget and boasts a nearly $70 billion surplus. It funds 10 Cabinet departments, many smaller federal agencies, and includes other governmental priorities, such as reorganizing the Arms Control Disarmament Agency and the US Information Agency into the State Department.

Lawmakers have been caught between the promises made last year of fiscal austerity and the first surplus in generations created by a strong economy. In the end, programs widely seen as nonemergency were included, with the justification that they constituted necessary spending.

"The only thing we can figure out emergency means today are things we don't want to pay for under the caps," says Ms. Cox Wait.

Under the emergency category, $22 billion is earmarked for projects that include fixing government computers for the year 2000 problem, improving US embassy security, and supporting peacekeeping troops in Bosnia. All are expenditures that have been foreseen for a long time.

"One thing this budget shows is that the budget caps everybody thinks are so hard and firm can be opened," says Bruce Bartlett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. All you have to do is "just call it an emergency."

"They are trying to get around a tight [spending] ceiling with all kinds of absurdities," adds Charles Schultze, President Lyndon Johnson's budget director. "It's bad budgeting. If you are going to do this the first year around, what are you going to do the second and third?"

Adding to this year's chaotic budgeting effort was an abbreviated legislative session and the political cross-currents of national elections just two weeks away. House and Senate Republicans disagree on spending priorities among themselves - as well as with the White House.

"They came across as a group of people more eager to get out of town than make a statement," says Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based Republican consultant, who believes the GOP leadership took the proper course. "There are times to fight the battles, and there are times not to."

Despite election-year pressures, others are concerned that in the historic afterglow of taming the deficit in the current budget cycle, discipline seems to have faded.

"This is the end of ideology as we know it," says Stanley Collender, a federal budget expert at Fleishman-Hillard in Washington. "Discipline has gone out the window and it's a bipartisan gone out the window."

The administration has touted its success in fighting off a Republican-led tax cut as well as the $1 billion it secured as a down payment on 100,000 additional teachers for the nation's schools. It denies raiding the surplus. The president all along has vowed not to touch the account, promising to bank the windfall for reforming Social Security.

"The projected surpluses could disappear overnight with a modest slowdown of economic growth," cautions Cox Wait.

Analysts are still looking through the omnibus bill that lawmakers had little time to digest, much less debate. "Only God knows what's in this monstrosity," said Senate Appropriations Committee member Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia. "And only a very few people are on speaking terms with him."

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