Budget lesson: Restraint slips away in an era of surplus

As Congress finalizes the fiscal 2000 budget as early as this week, the overwhelming message from Washington is that holding the line on spending in an era of budgetary surplus is near impossible.

Republicans gave way for another year on an array of Democratic spending demands worth at least $5 billion, and both parties loaded down the appropriations bills with tens of billions of dollars in pork-barrel projects.

"The biggest winners are pork producers ... and the loser is the American taxpayer," says Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Heritage Foundation here. Efforts to save the Social Security surplus helped constrain spending to a degree, but may prove largely an illusion created by creative-accounting gimmicks.

GOP congressional leaders had little choice but to give President Clinton the extra funding he wanted for education, police, foreign aid, and the environment. The alternative, another government shutdown, was a no-win proposition for Republicans.

"There's got to be compromise because the president has the veto pen," says House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R) of Florida.

Nevertheless, Republicans, who warned that the federal surplus would be frittered away when Mr. Clinton vetoed their prized, nearly $800-billion tax cut, have joined Democrats in inserting about $14.4 billion in thousands of "earmarks" for their districts and special interests into the spending bills.

"The administration gets its initiatives, and individual congressmen get their pork projects - it's bipartisanship at its worst," says Mr. Wittmann.

Still, while fiscally conservative Republicans may complain about their party's backsliding from its pledge of five years ago to drastically cut government, most Americans are unlikely to pay much attention.

Enjoying a booming economy, Americans recently have expressed greater concern about traditional Democratic priorities such as education and health care than about GOP goals of tax cuts and fiscal austerity.

In the end, the budget deals struck in recent days were less about money - the gap between the two sides was relatively small - than about policy priorities. In general, the agreements reached so far have largely met the president's requests, while Republicans won some limited but significant concessions on philosophical issues.

Education was one of the biggest winners, gaining large funding increases. Republicans agreed to add $1.4 billion for a wide range of programs including the president's plan for hiring 100,000 additional teachers to reduce class size.

As part of the deal, Republicans won greater flexibility for school districts to use the funds to improve teacher quality overall - a goal critics say is given short shrift by the administration.

In foreign affairs, Republicans bowed to administration requests and granted $2.6 billion to carry out the Wye River Middle East peace accord, international debt relief, and economic aid. Meanwhile, they agreed to release nearly $1 billion in late dues for the United Nations. Without the payment of a portion of the back dues, the US would lose its vote in the UN General Assembly in January.

In return for the UN dues, the Clinton administration made a significant concession to anti-abortion groups, by prohibiting international family-planning groups that use US funds from encouraging foreign countries to ease their abortion laws. The president can waive that restriction, although that would trigger a partial redirection of family-planning money into childhood disease prevention.

On justice issues, Clinton gained an extra $600 million in spending, nearly half of which will go toward hiring more police officers. Finally, on the environment, Republicans agreed to spend about half a billion dollars for the purchase of Western lands. GOP negotiators also said they were "watering down" some of the dozens of anti-environmental riders attached to appropriations bills that serve oil, mining, and ranching interests, among others.

One major looming budget issue was how to find $7 billion in "offsets" to keep the extra spending from eating up the Social Security surplus - a goal that experts say largely depends on accounting tricks. For example, billions of dollars will be labeled "forward funding," which pushes spending into the next fiscal year, says a GOP appropriations aide. "Where there's a will, there's a gimmick," says Wittmann.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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