Congress as 'big spender' - an unfair rap?

Bush warns about lawmakers' penchant for pork. But so far, spending hits targets.

As the White House suits up with pads and cleats for this fall's budget games, Coach Bush is directing his team to hold the line on congressional spending.

If lawmakers try to bust the budget, "we're going to blow the whistle," he says. His dire warnings of lawmakers going "hog wild" with spending leave the impression of a Congress readying to run a two-ton budget into the White House end zone.

But excessive spending on Capitol Hill may not be the issue, as it has been in years past.

In a pleasant surprise even to Mr. Bush, Congress has so far played by the budget rules, passing two relatively pork-free supplemental funding measures this summer and churning out many of its 13 annual spending bills fairly quickly - and on budget.

"This notion that spending is out of control on the Hill couldn't be more factually incorrect," says a Democratic Senate aide. "It's a phony issue."

Pressure on both parties

What's kept spending under control so far is the pressure on each party to prove itself to be more fiscally responsible than the other. It's a mantle Democrats were able to pull on during the Clinton years - and that Republicans desperately want back.

"The Democrats are not going to be going over the budget," says the Senate aide, echoing the comments of Senate budget chairman Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota and appropriations chairman Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia. "We're not going to give him the ammunition to blame us," the aide says.

Additionally, there's that promise about saving Social Security. As the federal surplus shrinks - and new Congressional Budget Office estimates due out today are expected to paint a bleaker outlook - neither party wants to be the one blamed for dipping into the Social Security surplus to pay for other spending.

Altered climate

The new fiscal environment stands in contrast to last year - when the surplus was growing to record levels. In 2000, a GOP-led Congress and a Democratic president agreed on the largest one-year spending increase in history, about $50 billion.

But this year, the budget surplus is shrinking, and that may be enough to actually nudge Congressional spending below the agreed-on targets passed in the budget resolution earlier this year, ventures Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities here.

"Congress might even cut back from the budget resolution, in which case, why does the president do this [over-spending] message?" Mr. Kogan asks.

Deflecting criticism?

An obvious reason is to deflect the argument from Democrats that it is his own request for an $18 billion increase in defense spending - and his tax cut - that will bust the budget. Even House budget chairman Jim Nussle (R) of Iowa, says he is "very troubled" by defense exceeding the budget resolution, though the White House plans to vigorously push it.

Even without the requested boost for defense, the White House still suffers from spending largess, says Dan Mitchell, an economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"The administration, to be honest, asked for much too much spending to begin with," Mr. Mitchell says.

In recent speeches, President Bush has acknowledged the restrained Congress of the summer, even praising Democrats who have contributed to that restraint. But, as an administration official says, there's no guarantee that restraint will continue.

"Every year, there's a discussion of living in the budget, and every year, at the end of the year, they don't," the official says. Just to make sure that the focus - and pressure - stays on Congress, the president will continue to emphasize the dangers of lawmakers' overspending in coming weeks.

Republicans are countering a Democratic television ad on the budget with one of their own, and the White House is holding daily, 9:30 a.m. "budget message" meetings with senior administration officials. Additionally, the vice president will be dispatched to spread the word on talk shows.

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